Citing aggravate‘s Latin origins, some protectors of an imaginary traditional English claim the word only means to make worse (which is closely related to its Latin source, the verb aggravare, meaning to make heavier), and that it is wrongly used in the senses to irritate and to anger. But these newer senses have been in English for hundreds of years,1 and most speakers of the language have no problem with them.
English is full of words that have changed over time. We can’t explain why some people have fixed on aggravate as a word whose original meaning must be preserved.
Of course, the older sense of aggravate is going strong, and careful writers are free to restrict the word to that one meaning. And it is true that aggravate is often used where irritate would be clearer. But we don’t have the power to change other writers’ usage preferences.
Aggravate is often used in its older sense:
He’s dealing with a back injury, but the Saints have been very careful not to aggravate it during practice. [Denver Post]
They triggered outrage in Pakistan and aggravated tensions in an already shaky relationship … [Australian]
Development by its nature also aggravates risks. [Economist]
But many writers have no qualms about using aggravate as a synonym of irritate—for example:
Yes, it aggravates me that I cannot control time. [Camp Lejeune Globe]
My role is to give him a twice-monthly paycheck. And not aggravate him over deadlines … [Post-Bulletin]
Going through security at the airport can often be an aggravating experience at the best of times. [Daily Mail]