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Agita

March 10, 2006

I first learned the word in 1998. I was counselor for 15 11-12 year olds. They were a precocious bunch. The other counselors and I would walk around saying, “You’re giving us agita!” I joined the bunk half way through the summer, and thus just picked up the word and its general meaning without any real clarification. One of the more unruly campers had a name similar to the word, all I can remember is us calling her Agita for the summer, her given name escapes me.

I’ve since used the word sporadically over the last several years, always just assuming it was a descriptor for unease, nervous stomach, an unsettling feeling. I have in fact passed it on to others as a great word for describing anxiety caused by others or events out of your control.

Over the last year I’d started to learn that it really meant indigestion. In fact when googled the only related result you get is a message board about prilosec where the string was titled Agita.

Monday night I was seized with overwhelming anxiety as a result of circumstances that were beginning to move out of my control. I wanted to say to others the next morning, “I had wicked ajada last night.” But stopped myself. Did I really? Did I have indigestion? No. However, the word still seemed the perfect way to describe it. Saying I was anxious didn’t capture it for me, I wasn’t nervous, I wasn’t worried, I just had agita.

So, I got to thinking did it matter that it meant indigestion, do most people even know the definition? I’d convinced many friends over the years of my definition, maybe in fact it was okay if I kept using it that way. The empty google search convinced me even more that I could use it however I wanted, google didn’t have any way of proving me wrong. On the other hand, it wasn’t backing me up either.

In the end, I think people will get it if I use it, and if they don’t I can explain… “Well it means indigestion, but I use it to describe an unsettling feeling, or anxious stomach, cause really, doesn’t Agita just sound so much better?”

UPDATE:

Thanks to Mom and Jen- the correct spelling is Agita and below I’ve pasted what I found on a great website- Word Detective

Dear Word Detective: What is the Italian or Yiddish word for heartburn? I grew up hearing my parents saying “argada,” but since I’ve moved to the South no one seems to believe it’s actually a word. Help! — Kelly, via the internet.

Tell me about it. Ever since I moved to rural Ohio from New York City a few years ago, I’ve been getting funny looks from people whenever I use standard New-Yorkisms such as “go figure” or “fugeddaboudit.” Of course, they also think “bialy” is a breed of dog, so I guess it’s hopeless.

In any case, the word your parents were using was almost certainly “agita.” You won’t find “agita” in most dictionaries, although it is a quintessential Italian-American slang word. Strictly speaking, “agita” is a stomach upset or heartburn. But “agita” can also mean that special kind of existential dyspepsia of the soul you get when absolutely everything goes wrong. Comedian Jackie Mason has explained “agita” as “when you have been aggravated to the point where it feels like you have a serious migraine headache throughout your whole body.” “Agita” is thus more or less the Italian-American equivalent of the Yiddish “tsuris” (“misery”), an equation not lost on Woody Allen, who made a song about “agita” the centerpiece of his 1984 film “Broadway Danny Rose.”

“Agita” is not a standard Italian word, and linguists are not certain where came from. One possible source is the Italian word “agitare” (“to agitate” or “to trouble”), which in turn came from the Latin “agitare,” which meant “to stir up.” To be “agitato” in Italy is to be very excited, and a musical score marked “agitato” is intended to be played at a frenzied pace. But it’s also possible that the source is “acido” (pronounced “AH-chee-do”), Italian for “stomach acid,” which then possibly became “agita” (“AH-jih-ta”) over time. Whatever the source, “agita” seems to have arrived in New York with Italian immigrants around the turn of the century, and has been in constant use, especially in places like New York City, ever since.

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