It seems that they can all mean "easily provoked to anger"

irascible:Easily provoked to outbursts of anger; irritable.

fractious:Irritable; argumentative; quarrelsome.

irritable:1.Capable of being irritated. 2.Easily exasperated or excited.

atrabilious:1.Characterized by melancholy. 2.ill-natured; malevolent.

  • 1
    Noöne has fractious or irascible bowel syndrome. – Matt E. Эллен Aug 31 '15 at 12:18
  • Get off my lawn! – Robusto Aug 31 '15 at 12:19
  • Add also atrabilious (or atrabiliar) to the list ... – Graffito Aug 31 '15 at 12:24
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    I think you should amend that to they can all mean 'easily provoked to anger' One of the fascinating aspects of English is that it is a highly context-dependent language. In order to distinguish them fully we would have to give dozens or maybe hundreds of examples. Additionally English is many sourced. We have words that come from Germanic, Greek and Latin roots. In particular those from Latin come from more than one heritage. For example we have a lot of French-derived vocabulary which in turn is mostly Latinate in origin. – chasly from UK Aug 31 '15 at 12:27
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    I have lived a long full life, and this is the first time I have ever seen atrabilious used. And I've never heard it used, not once. – Robusto Aug 31 '15 at 13:17
  1. irritable: On the verge of anger or frustration - usually used when the condition is relatively temporary or short-lived. Ex: "She's very irritable, it must be that time of the month."

  2. irascible: Argumentative, curmudgeonly - Describes a more permanent character flaw. Ex: "I won't shop there anymore, the owner is irascible."

  3. fractious: Someone who seems to be argumentative because they thrive on discord - a "shit-stirrer". Ex: "Sure, go ahead... Invite Marge to be on the committee - all committees need a fractious element."

  4. atrabilious: Don't know. Never heard it. Never read it. Pretty sure it wasn't on the SATs.


"irritable" is usually used to mean "gets irritated" or "often gets irritated."

I personally suggest it's a "poor" word - don't use it. When you use it, you pretty much have to add an adjective like "very"; on the whole it's just much clearer to say "she gets irritated easily." You can (as you should) also be much more specific that way: "cats irritate her"; "everything at her job irritates her"; "almost everything irritates her".

"fractious" is little-used. When used, it is used to mean "starts arguments".

(Note that it comes from the word "fractions" - a person who tends to divide a group in to fractions through argument, a "splitter" if you will.)

Generally do not use it. It's almost certainly the case that you mean "argumentative." Only use "fractious" if (incredibly) you very specifically are trying to say "tends to cause divisions in to factions amount social groups. Of course, you'll never, ever need to say that in your life, so don't use the word.

"irascible" is only used when you want to sound like you know fancy words, so don't use it. If anything, it means "yells a lot," or, the "grumpy old man" type. Don't use it. Say what you mean (such as "He yells a lot" or "He always complains about dinner" or whatever the actual case may be.)

"atrabilious" is barely a word. Don't use it, forget about it.

"irritable" - gets irritated

"fractious" - a "splitter"

"irascible" - grumpy

"atrabilious" - non-word

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