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Words March 16

by and


 “But no matter which version of Indian history California adopts for its 6th graders, it is bound to aggravate someone. The Board of Education has already heard from South Indians who argued that the HEF and Vedic Foundation represent a North Indian upper-caste perspective.”
I’ve known people who insisted that aggravate has one meaning — “to make worse” — and that using it to mean “annoy,” as in the example above, is incorrect. The authorities don’t support them. Random House, for example, says:
“Both senses first appeared in the early 17th century at almost the same time; the corresponding two senses of the noun aggravation also appeared then. Both senses of aggravate and aggravation have been standard since then. The use of aggravate to mean ‘annoy’ is sometimes objected to because it departs from the etymological meaning ‘to make heavier,’ and in formal speech and writing the sense ‘annoy’ is somewhat less frequent than ‘to make worse.’ The noun aggravation meaning ‘annoyance’ occurs in all types of speech and writing.”

 Seeing the headline “Heifer urges workers to ‘cow-mute,’ ” I thought that Heifer International, the philanthropic organization, was asking its employees to mute their cows, possibly with some device specially made for the purpose, like a trumpet mute. Heifer provides livestock to needy families in 50 countries. All those animals mraw-ing at the same time would make quite a racket, I suppose. But it turned out the article was not about quieting cows, but about workers being encouraged not to drive their cars to work, in the interest of protecting the environment. Now I understood. “They want their people to ride cows to work,” I said to myself. It made for an engaging mental image: hundreds of Heifer workers mounted on cattle heading down President Clinton Avenue toward their new office building. But, wrong again. Cow-mute is only an attempted play on the word commute and the Heifer name. The employees are encouraged to use all sorts of transportation other than the single-passenger automobile — bicycling, walking, car pooling. A worthwhile project, no doubt. But to me, only the person who rides a cow will qualify as a gen

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