Tag Archives: vex


There are those among us who oft wax litigious, not because they wish to convey justice or even because they carry a flag for a cause, but just because they wish to harass, harry, shake, and generally wear their opponents down. It may be a means of asserting personal dominance – the world has a back-drawer infestation of such pests – or it may be a way of silencing opponents or winning in business by draining the resources of others. Such cases, and such people, are vexatious.

That’s the recognized word, and it’s a good one. You know what vex is, I’m sure. In its shape and sound it even suggests the cross, squinty face one makes when subject to annoyance. We often use it to refer to objects and situations that senselessly annoy us, but in its first sense vexing is deliberately causing annoyance: a good synonym is harass. It is done to shake the person up and rub them the wrong way, disturb them, agitate them – that’s what Latin vexare means. It is most likely related to vehere, which means ‘carry’, which we see in convey and convex and also in vexillary ‘of or relating to flags’.

Those of us who think of vexation as a reaction to some irritant might assume vexatious means ‘disposed to be vexed’. In fact, it means ‘disposed to vex’ – i.e., ‘tending to cause vexation’. Certainly insensate objects and situations may be vexatious, for example the dreadful weather in which I recently drove to Montreal from Mont-Tremblant, the dreadful traffic on the roads, the dreadful lack of ploughing on the highways, the dreadfully unhelpful signage, the pasta-plate of roads around the airport, and the apparently pilgarlic “winter” tires on my rental car. But the word is best used for people who are deliberately obnoxious.

There are many ways a person may be vexatious; it is the quotidian sport of internet trolls and those “free speech” advocates who insist on their right not to convey the truth or bear the flag of justice but just to insult and irritate and maximally vex those they disdain, especially ones who can’t easily fight back. But vexatious has a special legal stature. It is an established term of art, and in some courts a judge may declare you to be vexatious and in so doing prevent you from bringing further suits unless you get express permission.

Of course courts are formal establishments with formal rules; speech in them is subject to explicit conventions and enforced restrictions. Other areas of interaction in society are not as explicitly governed; we communicate using courtesies and conventions that we tacitly agree on and cooperate in. Vexatious people abuse the cooperation and subvert the agreement; in the dance of communication, they are the ones wearing spike-soled shoes that damage the floor. Their “free speech” destroys the basis of speech in society; it claims a right to that which it negates. It insists on the cooperation of others while it is utterly uncooperative; it demands goodwill serve badwill; it breaks faith. Since the point of the right of free speech is the preservation and reinforcement of communication in society, vexatious communicators work to destroy what they claim to be building. Speech is like building bridges on bridges on bridges on bridges; vexatious speech is like driving demolition equipment onto those bridges to damage them. Speech is like a ball game; vexatious speech sets out to break the balls.

Most parts of society are not courts of law; we can’t, in declaring someone vexatious, force them to get permission before they can speak again. But though we may not be able to stop a vexatious person from talking, we don’t need to give them an audience. We don’t need to let spike-shoed dancers onto our floors, demolition machines onto our bridges, or ball-breakers onto our playing fields. Freedom of speech not only lets but expects us to nix the vexatious.


Her brows were spiked angrily v. Her eyes were cut to half-open e. Her mouth was puckered tight x. His face looked afflicted.

“I am vexed,” she said, her mouth puckering bitterly and her nose wrinkling as she said the word. “Vexed. We’re in a fine fix thanks to your vacillation.”

He faced his vehicle. “It’s not my fault!” he said, his arms as on a crucifix. “The road is excessively convex! It was quite inadvertent!” The truck teetered on an apex, its axle transfixed. He gave the vehicle a couple of swift kicks, to no effect. He circled around to the back and pulled out a flag, which he affixed to the antenna.

“Well, this is just the sort of wreck that one expects,” she growled, crushing gravel beneath her Blahniks. “Wicked with words, but sucks with trucks and such mechanicals.”

He swept his hand to direct her look to their context. “We are in word country.” Syntax trees branched on all sides. Close by was heard the chuckle of an onomatopoeic brook.

“And what word is this?” She indicated the vexing convexity.

“I – um…” he bent close to look, genuflected, peeked. “I think it’s a root. It looks green…”

“A root?” One eyebrow arched. “What’s the root of convex?” Her tone was not expectant or respecting.

“Well… one wants to say vex…”

She gave a triumphant look, threw her arms up and started to walk away.

“But it’s not that vex!” he said. “The vex in convex – and vexillum –” he indicated the banner affixed to the aerial – “comes from vehere, ‘carry’, same as in vehicle.”

She paused and looked back towards him. “No wonder,” she said, “your vehicle” – her voice dripping with pique – “is such” – she spun and started to walk again – “a vexation!”

“But vexation – vex – vexed” – he started to walk after her – “is a different root! From vexare, ‘shake, agitate, disturb’!”

“Go shake, agitate, disturb yourself,” she growled, unstopping, shaking.

He exhaled, exasperated. “Well, you’re doing dick to help fix this!” He turned back. “Vixen.” She kept walking.

He muttered to himself as he approached the truck once more. “Why is there a root in the middle of the route?” He paused, transfixed. “Root. Route. Vex Route. Vex Rte. Vertex.” He ducked back down to look again. “Yes, there’s our mix-up! Vertex – the peak, the angle, the point on a curve or surface where the axis meets it.” The truck’s axle met the root in one spot. “But what’s the root?”

He turned again, looked at her back as she walked away. Then he turned back. “Vert. It only looks green! Vert, from vertere, ‘turn’. Inadvertently hit vert… What can turn this around?”

He vaulted into the cab of the truck and turned the steering wheel hard right, then, all four wheels engaged in reverse, pressed the accelerator. The front right wheel caught a grip and pushed the axle loose. He continued in a backward circle until he was turned completely, and free. “Vert-uoso!” he said, exultant.

He put the truck in forward and accelerated, leaving the convex vertex reflected in his mirror. And behind it, breaking her Blahniks in a sudden sprint, was vexation.

Thanks to Margaret Gibbs for suggesting vexed.