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Both nearly mean to criticise. So, what is the difference in usage?

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Sounds like you may have been reading some Thomas Covenant? :) –  Matt DiTrolio Mar 28 '11 at 18:05
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4 Answers

The underlying meaning of excoriate is to flay the skin off, and execrate means to curse.

Both words are used somewhat figuratively in the sense of criticise very harshly, and both are quite uncommon - so much so that probably this figurative sense probably accounts for most occurrences of each.

The words look and sound similar, are both used with exactly the same figurative sense, and are both relatively unfamiliar to even fluent speakers. If you intended to use one, but forgot the exact word, it's pretty much a 50% chance you'd end up coming across the other word first by looking things up.

Which wouldn't matter - everyone else is doing the same thing, so in the end we may as well say the two words are exact equivalents in this sense. People here may laboriously set out supposed differences here, but they won't have normally been significant to a speaker actually choosing which of the two words to use.

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I think you would see excoriate with some frequency in print. I'm thinking of writing with a slightly elevated tone, either from literature or in opinion or review pieces from somewhere like the new york times, harper's etc., –  jbelacqua Mar 28 '11 at 17:23
    
@jgbelacqua: I wouldn't disagree. I think excoriate wouldn't be out of place in such august publications today. Execrate though seems more quaint - still usable, but to me at least it has medieval & priestly overtones that maybe wouldn't have been intended by the writer. –  FumbleFingers Apr 3 '11 at 0:20
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Execrate was more widely used a century ago that excoriate, now it's the other order (though both are little used). Google ngram results (which are confirmed by the Corpus of Contemporary American English):

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(blue: excoriate; red: execrate; green: excoriaged; yellow: execrated)

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  • excoriate - you're yelling directly at someone

  • execrate - you're yelling about them (but not necessarily to their face)

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The only difference I can find is that excoriate is reported by the NOAD as formal word, while execrate is not reported to be formal.

As per the meaning, execrate means "feel or express great loathing for;" the fact I feel an intense dislike doesn't mean I am criticizing somebody.

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