ex·​ac·​er·​bate ig-ˈza-sər-ˌbāt How to pronounce exacerbate (audio)
exacerbated; exacerbating

transitive verb

: to make more violent, bitter, or severe
The new law only exacerbates the problem.
exacerbation noun

Did you know?

The Latin adjective acer, meaning "sharp," forms the basis of a number of English words. Acerbic ("having a bitter temper or sour mood"), acrid ("having a sharp taste or odor"), and acrimony ("a harsh manner or disposition") are just the tip of the jagged iceberg. First appearing in English in the 17th century, exacerbate combines the Latin prefix ex- ("out of" or "outside") with acer offspring acerbus, meaning "harsh" or "bitter." Just as pouring salt in a wound worsens pain, things that exacerbate cause a situation to go from bad to worse. A pointed insult or cutting remark, for example, might exacerbate tensions between two bitter rivals. The legacy of acer isn't all negative, however. The Latin name for the genus of maple trees and shrubs is Acer, owing to maples’ characteristically pointy leaves.

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Exacerbate vs. Exasperate

Exacerbate is frequently confused with exasperate, and with good reason. Not only do these words resemble one another in spelling and pronunciation, they also at one time held exceedingly similar meanings. Exasperate is today most commonly used as a synonym of annoy, but for several hundred years it also had the meanings “to make more grievous” and “to make harsh or harsher.” Exacerbate is now the more common choice of these two words when one seeks to indicate that something is becoming increasingly bitter, violent, or unpleasant. It comes in part from the Latin word acer, meaning “sharp,” whereas exasperate is from asper, the Latin word for “rough.”

Examples of exacerbate in a Sentence

The declining retirement security faced by growing numbers of Americans is being exacerbated by increasing longevity and quickly rising health care costs. Jeff Madrick, New York Review of Books, 20 Mar. 2008
… the sway that pack journalism holds on the Beltway press corps persists. The Crowd is never so influential as in the ever-lengthening season of presidential campaigns. The feverish obsessions of the blogosphere have only exacerbated the phenomenon: Now the herd just turns faster in pursuit of some ginned-up "controversy" or faux scandal. Editor & Publisher, April 2007
The proposed factory shutdown would only exacerbate our unemployment problems. His angry comments have exacerbated tensions in the negotiation process.
Recent Examples on the Web The moon’s clash with volatile Pluto exacerbates an ongoing power struggle. USA TODAY, 10 Sep. 2023 After coming out and moving/running away, this has only been exacerbated. Sahaj Kaur Kohli, Anchorage Daily News, 10 Sep. 2023 That practice was tragically exacerbated by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which, alarmed by rising food allergies, advised parents in 2000 to avoid exposing kids to peanuts or peanut products until age 3. Andrew Van Dam, Washington Post, 8 Sep. 2023 The lack of adherence to this doctrine combined with the 1984 Chevron decision has greatly exacerbated matters. Caleb Nunes, National Review, 8 Sep. 2023 Calming Inflammation: Soothing Anxious Minds Inflammation within the body can often exacerbate feelings of anxiety. Amber Smith, Discover Magazine, 7 Sep. 2023 The concepts aren’t new, but the school and childcare closures during the pandemic exacerbated and spotlighted them. Beth Ann Mayer, Parents, 7 Sep. 2023 My environmental sciences professors were more likely to view biotech as exacerbating environmental problems than as a relevant potential solution to the climate crisis. Lily Fitzgerald, STAT, 5 Sep. 2023 Enter Email Sign Up The flooding has exacerbated Vermont’s existing housing crisis, which is the biggest challenge the state faces in the flood recovery right now, Republican Gov. Phil Scott said. Lisa Rathke, BostonGlobe.com, 3 Sep. 2023 See More

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'exacerbate.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History


borrowed from Latin exacerbātus, past participle of exacerbāre "to irritate, exasperate, make worse," from ex- ex- entry 1 + acerbāre "to make bitter, make worse," verbal derivative of acerbus "acid, bitter, bitterly hostile, distressing" — more at acerb

First Known Use

1660, in the meaning defined above

Time Traveler
The first known use of exacerbate was in 1660


Dictionary Entries Near exacerbate

Cite this Entry

“Exacerbate.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/exacerbate. Accessed 25 Sep. 2023.

Medical Definition


transitive verb
ex·​ac·​er·​bate ig-ˈzas-ər-ˌbāt How to pronounce exacerbate (audio)
exacerbated; exacerbating
: to cause (a disease or its symptoms) to become more severe
her condition was exacerbated by lack of care
exacerbation noun

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