Plague, when used as a verb, meaning To trouble, tease, bother, annoy, or pester, usually repeatedly, insistently, or constantly; to constitute a nuisance, threat, or danger to. Freq. in pass (OED sense 2a), seems to me to have declined.

1595 Spenser Amoretti xli, in Amoretti & Epithalamion sig. C6, If her nature and her wil be so, That she will plague the man that loues her most.

1616 B. Jonson Epicœne i. ii, in Wks. I. 534 It giues thee law of plaguing him.

1637 J. Bastwick Letany i. 21, I will..so plauge the Metropolicallity of Yorke and Canterbury.

1658 W. Johnson tr. F. Würtz Surgeons Guid ii. xii. 94 Patients in this case are commonly plagued with a cough.

a1681 J. Lacy Sr. Hercules Buffoon (1684) iii. iii. 28, I am so plagued with Citizens, that I cannot have a Deer that's mans meat, but they steal it out of my Park, my Lord.

1728 J. Gay Beggar's Opera i. viii. 9 Husbands and Wives..plaguing one another.

1767 P. Gibbes Woman of Fashion II. 171 What a dickens would you have more!.. I won't hear you, I won't be plagued.

a1817 J. Austen Persuasion (1818) IV. x. 221, I really cannot be plaguing myself for ever with all the new poems and states of the nation that come out.

1833 H. Martineau Tale of Tyne ii. 33 The big boys used to plague him, and he plagued the little ones.

1893 Dict. National Biogr. at Margaret Tudor, Queen of Scotland,
In 1541 she was again plaguing Henry with her money troubles.

1952 J. L. Waten Alien Son 105 You and your questions!.. Do you have to plague me, too?

1989 Chron. of Horse 1 Sept. 51/3 When the above measures are followed, even horses that have been plagued by sore feet..will usually show great improvement.

I do not include here the use of OED sense 1, which meaning is: To afflict (a person, community, country, etc.) with a plague, or with a difficulty or misfortune as if with a plague; to visit calamity or misfortune on (a person, etc.), esp. as a punishment or expression of displeasure.

When I was a child in the 1950s, in Norfolk, my parents generation made frequent use of it, often to describe the pesterings of their children - he keeps plaguing me to buy him a twin-barrelled bazooka. Nowadays I seldom, if ever, hear it used.

Is this the experience of others? And why might it be the case? It does seem to be an expressive conveyance, both of one's annoyance, as well as illustrative of the supplicant's intensity.

What might we use instead, which is more in vogue?

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    Are you sure your perceptions are representative? Google Ngrams might be said to indicate they're not. – Edwin Ashworth Jul 18 '15 at 22:39
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    "Is this the experience of others?" - Not mine. – Vladimir Kornea Jul 18 '15 at 22:55
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    @EdwinAshworth Google Ngrams only report the written instances, not everyday speech. We must take WS2's word when he states that he doesn't hear people use the verb plague as often as before. As for "why", maybe schools don't teach about the plague as much as they used to. Maybe "plague" has lost its derogatory tone over the years, and has been replaced by "bugging" and "nagging"—who knows! – Mari-Lou A Jul 18 '15 at 22:57
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    @Mari-Lou A I hope you will admit that it's pretty clear I haven't challenged WS2's honesty about his perceptions, merely a lack of research (though not worthy of the downvote someone has plagued him with) directed at finding general data himself. I wonder if you've looked at the contrasting Ngrams, which I chose in an attempt to investigate possible shifts in preferences? FWIW, I've noticed a decline in the use of 'plagued', less so perhaps when followed with 'by flies'. Though there seem to be fewer of them about nowadays hereabouts.... – Edwin Ashworth Jul 18 '15 at 23:11
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    Maybe you grew up? – Hot Licks Jul 18 '15 at 23:25

enter image description here


"Plaguing me to" was intermittently popular until about 1910, when "pestering me to" rather suddenly gained great popularity.

One suspects that some books published in the early 1900s led to this shift. A little late for Mark Twain's work, but certainly there were other popular authors who might have used the phrase. (It occurs to me that the source might have been some sort of periodical or series of dime novels.)

It should also be noted that "plague" has come to be tightly associated with bubonic plague, causing the word to imply something much worse than simple "trouble". This awareness/association likely occurred in the mid 1800s as a wave of bubonic plague swept through India and Asia. As a result it would have seemed a misuse of the word to apply it to a child's activities.

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    write [ Ngram ] ( add hyperlink ) without spaces and you should see this Ngram instead of an ugly long link. – Mari-Lou A Jul 20 '15 at 12:54

Until some point about 100 years ago, pest and plague were near-synonyms. Then, they started to diverge and pest became "insect" (that is, a specific, individualized agent that can cause various troubles) and plague became "disease" (a broad, vague influence causing negative consequences, including death).

To call a child a "pest" is no compliment, but can be borderline affectionate: she resembles a grasshopper, a ladybug.

To call anyone a "plague" is a (literally) deadly insult: he is comparable to cancer.

A person who continually bothers you is pestering you.

A problem that continually harms you is plaguing you.

  • You do not cite any evidence for what you have said in your first paragraph. Where did you discover this? – WS2 Jul 20 '15 at 22:49

At a guess, "he keeps bothering me" would be the replacement

enter image description here Ngram

As to why, I have no idea.

  • But it doesn't summon anything like the same level of disapprobation. – WS2 Jul 18 '15 at 23:18
  • @WS2 Nowadays, the main emotional response summoned by "he keeps plaguing me" is probably wry amusement. – Edwin Ashworth Jul 19 '15 at 8:50
  • @EdwinAshworth Sounds as if it may be some time since you spent much time with a six-year-old! Lovable as they are, it can, at moments, seem like the plague! I still can't think of a suitable alternative to she keeps plaguing me for... – WS2 Jul 19 '15 at 9:36

If you look at Google N-gram viewer you will find that the word is used pretty much as frequently as in the past two centuries. Whether as a noun or verb is not clear.

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    It's possible to clarify. – Edwin Ashworth Jul 18 '15 at 22:42
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    plague (verb) vs plague (noun) Make of it what you will. – Mari-Lou A Jul 18 '15 at 22:47
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    Why was this question downvoted? I am fairly new to this site, and some of the downvotes I have seen seem to me to be, well, grumpy. I upvoted it partly in gratitude for having this lovely usage recalled to my attention. – ab2 MonicaNotForgotten Jul 19 '15 at 0:57
  • From my comment to the question, although I accept that sometimes you can make graphs prove anything, I think there's clear evidence to support my gut feel that the specific usage OP queries has declined significantly over a considerable period. Besides which, if you've found different when you looked at Google N-gram viewer, you should include a link to the relevant evidence (which I suspect will be flawed in some way). – FumbleFingers Jul 19 '15 at 2:09
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    @ab2 I'm only guessing, but perhaps the downvoter doesn't appreciate the stance taken ('I feel that a reference to google Ngram is sufficient information') when tchrist, for instance, has previously expressed site policy: 'We are looking for more substantial answers with documented references, not merely [statements that may possibly be no more than] personal opinion. Those are just comments, not answers.' – Edwin Ashworth Jul 19 '15 at 8:48

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