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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(1980’s | New Yorkese | “heartburn,” “acid indigestion,” “anxiety,” “stress”)

I didn’t know this, but the rest of the internet did: “Agita” originally referred to gastric distress. No one seems to have demonstrated conclusively where the word comes from, but many people blame the Italians, possibly by way of a colloquial pronunciation of “acido” (which means, surprise, “acid”). It may have started life as a euphemism allowing the speaker to avoid unsavory details, just as telling your boss you were out sick with an upset stomach usually ends the conversation. “Agita” seems to have come into use in New York before it did anywhere else — some on-line sources claim it has been around for decades, but the earliest uses I’ve found date from around 1980. Woody Allen’s 1984 film, Broadway Danny Rose, contains a song of that title, and Ed Koch was quoted using the word in the eighties as well. One may doubt Allen’s and Koch’s Italian credentials, but that’s the great thing about New York. Ethnic vocabularies slosh around and get all mixed up in the urban mind just as a big plate of pasta and tomato sauce gets all jumbled in your stomach. For those of us that dislike certain words, there’s even a kind of linguistic heartburn caused by hearing one of them, which provokes an analogous sour, burning sensation in the ear and mind.

Today, the expression is much more likely to refer to a general emotional state than mere stomach trouble. The internet doesn’t answer conclusively the question of how chronic indigestion or aggravation has to be to qualify as “agita.” I tend to think of it as an ongoing condition, but it can also be a temporary tempest that subsides as soon as the irritant is removed. In everyday use, it implies a persistent quality. The substratum of “agita” has changed since the early days: from discomfort caused by indigestion to nail-biting nervousness caused by worrisome circumstances or developments.

Allen and Koch might have had in mind two Yiddish words that are related, though not very closely: tsuris (troubles) and shpilkes (restlessness). At least one commentator equates “agita” with “tsuris,” but they are not an exact match. Tsuris normally come from the outside rather than welling up inside you, but the main point is that they (“tsuris” is plural) are the troubles you are actually having, to which you may react with philosophical tranquility or by waking up in a cold sweat. “Shpilkes” is even farther away, but when “agita” is used as a straight synonym for “agitation,” they have something in common, even though the mood is quite different. “Agita” covers only personal feelings, not “agitation” in the sense of public protest or stirring up unrest. That doesn’t mean entire classes or types of people cannot experience agita, but it’s more a shared experience than a collective one.

“Agita” is a trade name for an insecticide (chemical name thiamethoxam), and in prescription-speak, it means “stir,” which is much easier to understand than the usual cropped Latin found on your medicine bottle. It also appears occasionally as a woman’s name, but I hope in that context it would be pronounced ah-GHEE-tuh, or possibly “ah-JEE-tuh,” not accented on the first syllable as “agita” (AH-ji-tuh). At least I hope so.

Thanks to Anna from the Bronx, friend and colleague of lovely Liz from Queens, who nominated, all unwittingly, this week’s expression.


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