The Shot Heard Round the World of Words
Seventy years ago, on Oct. 3, 1951, New York Giants outfielder and second-baseman Bobby Thomson blasted "the shot heard round the world" -- a three-run homer in the ninth inning of the final playoff game to win the National League pennant for the Giants over the Brooklyn Dodgers.
A recent newspaper story described the excitement and pride of the man who now owns that home-run baseball: "For years he has told anyone who was remotely interested about it, sometimes to the exacerbation of his wife."
My email inbox lit up like a scoreboard during a 10-run rally.
"Reading these types of usage errors can be exasperating," wrote Larry Waksman of South Windsor, Connecticut. "'Exacerbate' and 'exasperate' can mean the same thing as in 'making things worse,' but in this case I think the correct word would have been 'exasperation.'"
Larry is right. The meanings of the verbs "exasperate" and "exacerbate" do slightly overlap, but "exasperate" means "to annoy, irritate or anger" and is usually used to describe people, e.g., "His fixation on the baseball exasperated his wife."
By contrast, "exacerbate" means "to make more violent, bitter or severe" and is usually used to describe situations or problems, e.g., "The lingering pandemic is exacerbating our economic difficulties."
The Latin roots of each word provide clues to their differences. "Exasperate" derives from the Latin "asper," meaning "rough," suggesting a wearing away, an aggravation. "Exacerbate" derives from the Latin "acer," meaning "sharp," suggesting a pointed intensification.
I always rely on this mnemonic: "Exasperate" has a "p," so it applies to people; "exacerbate" has a "c," so it applies to circumstances.
In 1956 or so, when I was about 8 years old, my father and I happened to meet Ralph Branca, the Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher who served up that fateful home-run ball to Thomson.
My dad, speaking in hushed, reverent tones, introduced him to me as "the man who pitched the shot heard round the world to Bobby Thomson."
Because I was too young to remember the "shot," all this meant very little to me. I do remember thinking it strange that a man would be best known for a mistake he had made, and I wondered whether my father's description of him might exacerbate Branca's shame.
But if being introduced this way exasperated Branca, he didn't show it. He smiled cheerfully and shook my little hand.
Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Conn., invites your language sightings. His new book, "Mark My Words," is available for $9.99 on Amazon.com. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via e-mail to Wordguy@aol.com or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.Copyright 2021 Creators Syndicate Inc.