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.”

Example Sentences

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 Foods high in prebiotic fibers can exacerbate the symptoms. Valerie Agyeman, Good Housekeeping, 21 Mar. 2023 No matter how thin the plan, Xi can posture globally by noting that China is the only member of the U.N. Security Council with a peace plan, while echoing Putin’s line that NATO weapons supplies to Ukraine will only exacerbate tensions. Robyn Dixon, Washington Post, 19 Mar. 2023 There are fears that the agricultural crisis will exacerbate the country’s economic problems. Laura Paddison, CNN, 15 Mar. 2023 That's a slap in the face to educators and will exacerbate our teacher shortage. Neal Earley, Arkansas Online, 9 Mar. 2023 Some committee members also expressed concerns that all-lane highway tolls would exacerbate the region’s inequities and lock low-income motorists from jobs and housing opportunities by pricing them out of driving on highways. Ricardo Cano, San Francisco Chronicle, 9 Mar. 2023 Israeli and Palestinian officials say that Hamas and Islamic Jihad also secretly fund the Lions’ Den, seeking to fight Israel, destabilize the Palestinian Authority and exacerbate splits within Fatah, but not in plain sight. Hiba Yazbek, New York Times, 4 Mar. 2023 San Francisco officials want to hit pause In the meantime, some San Francisco officials want to apply the brakes on further expansion by Cruise, fearing that a larger fleet would exacerbate existing safety and traffic concerns. Jamie L. Lareau, Detroit Free Press, 25 Feb. 2023 Alexis Dorman, a Florida State University sophomore from Orlando and member of the Florida Chapter of Students Demand Action, said allowing people to carry guns without licenses will exacerbate gun violence. Jim Turner, Sun Sentinel, 21 Feb. 2023 See More

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'exacerbate.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

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 24 Mar. 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

More from Merriam-Webster on exacerbate

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