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April 6, 2013

The word frustrate has developed a new, more popular meaning which is rapidly overhauling, or indeed has already overhauled the more traditional meaning. The traditional meaning was to prevent or thwart: thus, in the seldom-sung second verse of the British National anthem, God is called upon to scatter Great Britain’s enemies and ‘Confound their politics/ Frustrate their knavish tricks.’ To frustrate someone’s efforts is to prevent them succeeding; someone who is sexually frustrated is prevented or thwarted from satisfying their urges.

Naturally, it’s annoying to be frustrated, and for a long time the word has been used with this sense of being thwarted and also rather cross about it. ‘Every time I go to the library it’s closed – it’s so frustrating!’ But what’s happened more recently is that the word has come to be a straightforward synonym for annoying or irritating, without any sense of being thwarted at all. ‘I’m feeling really frustrated!’ now needn’t carry the suggestion that someone or something has interfered with my plans; it just means I’m feeling pissed off.

The old meaning is still possible, though, and I wonder if both meanings will continue to exist side by side. I can think of two other words where the old-established meaning and a popular meaning co-exist in a similar way: one is ignorant, which can still be used in its older sense of just not knowing something, along with the popular meaning of rude or loutish. The other is aggravate which can still be used to mean make worse (‘That merely aggravates the offence’) and in the popular sense of annoy or irritate. Such co-existences can be very stable: aggravate has been used in both senses for at least 150 years. Humpty-Dumpty uses it in its popular sense (‘It is a most aggravating thing when a person doesn’t know the difference between a belt and a cravat!’) in Through the Looking-Glass, which was published in 1871. 

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  1. Hi. Just wanted to let you know I linked this post to one of mine. If you want to check it out it’s If you’re interested in words and such, I suggest checking out Ferdinand de Saussure, his work is really good dealing with language. You don’t need to post this by the way, I just thought you might be interested.

    • Thank you Jenn. I’m now following your blog. Nice to meet a fellow enthusiast for children’s literature. I teach a course in Children’s Literature for the Open University in the UK.

      Best Brand

  2. Jams O'Donnell permalink

    Hopefully and enormity? If the latter retains its old meaning.

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