The Pocket Encyclopedia of Aggravation

97 Things That Annoy, Bother, Chafe, Disturb, Enervate, Frustrate, Grate, Harass, Irk, Jar, Miff, Nettle, Outrage, Peeve, Quassh, Rile, Stress Out, Trouble, Upset, Vex, Worry, and X Y Z You!


By Laura Lee

Illustrated by Linda O’Leary

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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around September 12, 2017. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

This collection of 100 headaches, day-ruining events, moment destroying mishaps and infuriating everyday aggravations presents the fascinating facts behind the world’s most frustrating situations.

Laura Lee’s dry, humorous and scientific text explains why fingernails on the chalkboard make you cringe; why people drive slowly in the fast lane; why dripping faucets annoy women more than men; why the other line is always faster than the one you are on; and more. She also gives tips on how to deal with annoying things like brain freeze, hangnails, and that coworker that wears too much perfume. Amazingly, some things are less annoying when you know the facts.
Redesigned with enlightening diagrams and witty drawings, The Pocket Guide of Aggravation, finally answers the question, why is that so annoying?


"I said to myself, Arlo, if you were dead, a lot of the stuff that pisses you off probably wouldn't bother you so much."

—ARLO GUTHRIE, introduction to the song "Wake up Dead"


It has been more than fifteen years since that August afternoon when the idea for a book bit me on the leg. I was sitting beside a pond, lazily contemplating the way the sun reflected off the ripples in the water, when my reveries were interrupted by the itchy poke of a mosquito boring into me with her sipper. My mind was filled with questions. Why do mosquitoes flock to me more than to other people? What makes that lump appear on the skin? What makes it itch? Why are there annoying things like mosquitoes on the planet, anyway? It occurred to me that other people must wonder about this kind of thing as well. Why do I keep losing socks in the wash? Why am I always in the slowest line at the supermarket? Is there a correct answer when the cop asks, "Do you know how fast you were going?" I did not know, at that moment, that I was about to write my most successful book, and that eighteen or so books later, I would never surpass it in sales. (Annoying!) Who knew that pet peeves could be so profitable? It seems there is something gratifying in the realization that other people have been bugged by these little occurrences and even more gratifying to know why they happen. (Not as gratifying as if they did not happen in the first place, mind you, but gratifying nonetheless.) People are frustrated by thousands of little things, from hangnails and paper cuts to the mother of all aggravations—telemarketers, who are, incidentally, making a comeback. When the futurists of days gone by imagined a brave new world full of robots, they never dreamed these advances in technology would be used to call you in the middle of dinner to sell prescription drugs. It seems nearly every step in the march of human progress lands in dog doo.

No one is immune. On several occasions, the experts I consulted—scientists with long titles and multiple PhDs—ended our conversation by ranting about those little threads that hang from sweaters, people chewing on pencils, and fitted sheets that don't.

For example, I contacted Dr. Ron Grassi, D.C., M.S., DABDA, FACFE, Diplomate American Boards of Forensic Medical Examiners & Physical Disability Analysts, with a question about why stiff necks hurt so much. (An entry which, incidentally, did not make the final cut. Sorry about that.) Along with my answer I got the following: "Why do people scream on cell phones like they're yelling across a canyon? They don't do this on a regular phone. How about someone scraping the ice cream bowl with a spoon (after there is hardly any left) while you're lying in bed at night watching a movie. And the DOOR SLAMMERS!!!!! Do you know how insulting that is to a Corvette convertible?" Other experts were not as amused by the concept. A representative of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute seemed a bit annoyed when I phoned to ask if there was a mechanical engineer who could explain why a handheld can opener slides off the rim, leaving that little bit of joined metal that you can't seem to cut through when you start with the opener again. (I never did get an answer to that one.) One local librarian was confused when I came in and explained that I was looking for the psychology books because I wanted to find out why two pedestrians trying to get out of each other's way both dodge in the same direction, then both dodge to the opposite side, and end up doing an odd sidewalk dance. "You're not going to find any books on that," she said with a squint that clearly indicated she was sure I was insane or making fun of her or both. In my original introduction, I wrote that we should be optimistic about the fact that Americans are obsessed with the dust on their computer monitors and legroom on airplanes. You can only muster the energy to get upset about these things when the outer world is in a state of relative peace, tranquility, and prosperity. Although I have not found statistics to back it up, my guess is that scientists spend much less time and energy trying to figure out the exact chemical composition of intestinal gas or how long it takes a cookie to turn to mush in your mug when the nation is in the midst of war, famine, plague, or economic depression. In the absence of a huge national crisis, we have the freedom to ponder the little things. In that spirit, this is a highly uplifting work. That's what I wrote just before my book came out—the week of September 11, 2001. Given my reasonable hypothesis, I was sure The Pocket Encyclopedia of Aggravation was destined to disappear without a trace. But we returned to life and laughter and, importantly for me, complaining about the little things that get on our nerves. There is no escape from aggravation. People who live and work in cities deal with smog, long lines, traffic jams, noise, crowds, and a more fidgety, tension-filled lifestyle. People who live in the country have their own annoyances: bugs, roadkill, stepping in cow dung, and having to drive 20 minutes to get to the nearest post office. Some people choose to work in offices, where they deal with difficult coworkers and bosses, uninspiring environments of office cubicles, and having to plan months in advance to get days off. Others avoid those hassles by being self-employed. They deal with self-employment tax, paying for medical insurance out of pocket, and not having a weekly paycheck. People who live alone have to pay all the rent and there's no one at the house to call for help if the car breaks down. People who live together have to compromise more. I have come to the conclusion that the key to life is choosing which annoyances you prefer to deal with and adjusting your lifestyle accordingly.

Annoyances are subjective, I know. I once worked as a mime. One person's noise is another's symphony. One's aromatherapy is another's loud perfume. I compiled my original list of annoying things from personal observation and suggestions from friends and acquaintances. If I had written entries for all the items on my master list, it would rival the Oxford English Dictionary for shelf space. For some reason, my publisher thought that might make it hard to sell. I reduced the list by focusing on the aggravations that seem to elicit the most venom, and those that have the most interesting explanations. Over time, however, The Pocket Encyclopedia had become a bit stale. In the intervening years, the word "cyber" went from futuristic to old fashioned; they decided to take the hyphen out of the word email; and the jury is still out on whether or not to capitalize Internet. We managed to make it through an entire decade without ever coming to a consensus about what to call it. The zeroes? The 2000s? The aughts? CDs skipping, the laser pointer fad, and VCR clocks that flash 12:00 because you can't figure out how to set them lost their power to drive us nuts. A recent study concluded that men no longer hog the television remote control. We have reached a golden age of remote control parity… just as we are starting to watch videos on devices other than televisions. Beginning in 2009, a new law reduced the number of hidden fees and penalties that credit card companies can charge. The amount of luggage that gets misrouted by airlines has been significantly reduced thanks to better computer tracking systems. There were even aggravations that came and went before I could document them. For example, the iPhone was introduced and it came with pre-installed apps you were not allowed to delete. So you had to put them in their own special folder called "Apple Junk" that you hid on the fifth screen. (I'm talking to you "Stocks!") This year, Apple finally decided to let you delete them and a decade from now no one will remember they ever annoyed you in that way. I have confidence, however, that they will find new ways. (This is, after all, the company that removed the headphone jack and sold you an expensive dongle to replace it, calling it a brave innovation.) On a personal note, since the last edition of this book, I've come to know the frustration of having your reading glasses always in the other room. You see, botheration is a constant. The saccharine purple dinosaur we loved to hate in the 1990s was replaced with Pokémon Go. Cassette tapes that unwind and get eaten by the machine and video rental late fees may be things of the past, but they were replaced with buffering delays, selfie sticks, and a whole host of social-networking woes. Ten years from now, there will be something new, wondrous, consequential, and full of unforeseen side effects. Before we get to the main event, I want to take a moment to address one of the frequent complaints of grammar purists who gripe about such things in their blogs. There are those who feel that "aggravation" is the wrong word to describe life's little frustrations. Aggravation, they say, is making something worse. Indeed, this is the first definition of the word. Using aggravation to mean irritation or annoyance is, however, an accepted usage. If you don't think it ought to be, you've been outvoted by the people who write dictionaries. So there! For some reason, I'm not as much on board with dictionary authors' decision in 2013 to include the popular use of the word "literally" to mean not something that is actually true but literally its opposite. (As in "My head literally exploded.") On the subject of linguistic annoyances, one thing that has not changed since the first edition is that an inordinate number of vexations seem to start with the letter "C" and I still couldn't think of anything annoying that starts with Q. What are you going to do?


"Since thought is seen to be 'rhizomatic' rather than 'arboreal,' the movement of differentiation and becoming is already imbued with its own positive trajectory," is from The Continental Philosophy Reader, edited by Richard Kearney and Mara Rainwater. The line is part of an introduction intended to help students understand the chapter. Sure. That explains it.

Why do academics insist on writing in language that makes the reader squint and develop a headache? It is simply a matter of style, say defenders of dense, challenging prose. Different forums have different rules. People magazine has a different style from the New York Times, which has a different style than the Sears catalog. Every profession has its jargon. Academic specialties have more than their share because they are expressing complicated and often new ideas.

"There's a kind of presumption among journalists and people who talk about culture in the media that if it's written by an English professor, it should be comprehensible to others," Dr. Eric Mallin, an associate professor in the English Department at the University of Texas at Austin, told the Dallas Morning News. "That's assuming there is no specialized knowledge particular to the field."

Dr. Judith Butler, professor at the University of California at Berkeley, was unwittingly thrust into the center of the academic writing debate when the New Zealand publication Philosophy and Literature awarded a ninety-word sample of one of her articles the top prize in its annual Bad Writing Contest. The "honor" is given to the most "stylistically awful sentence" to come out of the scholarly world.

Butler defended her style of writing in a New York Times op-ed piece. Academic writing needs to be "difficult and demanding," she said, in order to question concepts that are so ingrained no one thinks to question them. Having to think about the meaning of each sentence provokes new ways of looking at a familiar world.

Others believe the jargon has little to do with communication. They see it as something akin to a secret handshake or a series of multisyllabic passwords. It is written to confirm academic authority, membership in the club.

In 1996, a New York University physicist submitted an article with fake phrases and gibberish to the journal Social Text, which published it as genuine scholarly analysis. When an English professor at Southern Oregon University was asked to paraphrase a long sentence from the Bad Writing Contest's second prize winner, he admitted, "It doesn't make a lot of sense to me."

Yet to gain tenure, professors must publish, and to be published, they must adopt the accepted style. Philosopher Bertrand Russell summed it up in his essay "How I Write." "I am allowed to use plain English because everybody knows that I could use mathematical logic if I chose," he wrote. "I suggest to young professors that their first work should be written in a jargon only to be understood by the erudite few. With that behind them, they can ever after say what they have to say in a language 'understanded of the people.'"




When you reach that special age when you start to think about trying to attract a boyfriend or girlfriend, you become preoccupied with your appearance—and then Mother Nature reveals she has a sick sense of humor. Your skin begins to change, an oily sheen covers your face and pimples pop up everywhere. What is more, the stress of having acne can give you acne!

The tendency to get acne is inherited. Males are more prone to it than females during their teenage years, but because it is hormonally triggered, adult women often have outbreaks of acne that correspond with their menstrual cycles. Scientists speculate that this side effect of puberty once had a purpose. In the days when people hunted and foraged for food in the wild, the skin may have needed extra protection from the elements as we reached adulthood. Now the overactive oil glands just give you zits.

Androgens, the sex hormones released at puberty, cause the production of sebum, the fat that naturally keeps your skin and hair soft. Somehow, though, the sebum gets trapped along with dead skin cells. The follicle stretches outward and a bump forms on top. Contrary to popular belief, blackheads are not caused by dirt that gets stuck in a pore. Blackheads are oil plugs that make their way to the surface and turn dark when the air hits them. If they are covered and can't break through the surface, the oil plug stays white.

When the sebum in the blocked gland is transformed into free fatty acids they become food for bacteria. The body responds by sending white blood cells to kill the intruders. The result is pus and a big pimple.

The tendency to get acne couldn't come at a worse time in life. David Elkind, who studied egocentrism in adolescence, showed that during our teen years we become preoccupied with our self-image. We feel there is an imaginary audience watching our every move—an audience full of critics. Stress—having a big test, a job interview, a big date, or an outbreak of acne at a time when you feel especially self-conscious—causes your body to release more androgens, which can trigger new pimple outbreaks, which can cause more stress, which causes your body to release more androgens and so on, and so on.


You're in the middle seat. Your bag is stowed under the seat in front of you, which means you can't stretch your feet out in front of you—unless you call putting your tootsies a couple of inches forward "stretching." Your neighbors have taken both armrests and now the guy in the seat in front of you decides to lean his seat all the way back. Your thimble-sized cup of coffee is now on your lap, and you have about as much freedom of movement as a body in a coffin.

Travel, for those of us back in the steerage class, is uncomfortable and psychologically stressful because other people are planted well within our bounds of personal space. "Quite frankly, I don't think this issue would even exist if we passed a law that required all executives of the nation's airlines to fly in the middle seat on coach," said former Alaska Senator Frank Murkowski.

The FAA does have regulations as to the configuration of the seats. They must be designed to insure that all passengers can exit an aircraft in an emergency within a specified period of time. There are no regulations that assure minimum comfort. To make matters worse, airlines are fuller than they've ever been. Throughout most of the twentieth century they flew with loads of 50 to 60 percent. Ten years ago load capacity rose to 70 percent. Now it is 84 percent. And the airlines keep inventing new ways to shoehorn us in.

Until the 1980s, the distance between your seat back and the one in front of you was 34 inches. When the first edition of this book came out in 2001, I reported that carriers had cut that down to 31 or 32 inches. Today airlines routinely provide between 28 and 31 inches. As travel writer Scott McCartney put it, "one passenger's nose may be three inches closer to the back of the head in front of her." Some psychologists believe what's going on at eye level stresses us out more than any lack of leg room.

That is not to say the other parts of your anatomy are comfortable in an airline seat. According to Kathleen Robinette, who studies body measurements for the U.S. Air Force, the design of the seats has always been faulty. Sometime back in the 1960s, designers opted to base the width of the seat on the average dimension of male hips. They assumed, as men are larger than women, that a seat that fit a man would fit a woman as well. There are two problems with this. First, the shoulders and arms are wider than the hips, so fitting your backside does not prevent you from rubbing against your neighbor or spilling out into the aisle. Second, women's hips are wider than men's. So seats never quite worked for everyone to begin with. The result, Robinette says, is that the seats were about five inches too narrow in the 1960s. In the 1970s and 80s, average seats were between 18 and 20 inches. These days they are 16.5 to 17.5 inches even though the average American gained 30 pounds and increased his hip size to 20.6 inches in the same time period. So bigger passengers, smaller seats. But here's the thing: as much as we love to complain about the lack of legroom, unpalatable airline food, and having to pay for movie headsets (come on, I paid $400 for this ticket and you can't give me a headset for free?), we want our travel to be cheap. We buy airline tickets by going online and seeking out the lowest price. If the booking sites provided an option to search by legroom and other amenities, perhaps we would shop that way. This would make sense in the new world of à la carte pricing, but so far none of them do. Until that changes, to get our economy class business, airlines are in a race to the bottom to offer the cheapest ticket. You can, however, do a bit of research on your own using a site like which shows the specific jet and the configuration in each section.




You sit down to lunch at the office and carefully unwrap a ham sandwich from a sheet of aluminum foil. Unbeknownst to you, a small piece has remained in the sandwich and when you bite into your lunch the foil is pressed between your fillings. A sharp pain vibrates through your teeth, as if a sadistic dentist were trying to inspire a Pavlovian fear of ham on white. The pain is literally an electric shock.

This happens when you have traditional dental fillings made of mercury combined with either tin or silver. The aluminum foil acts as an anode, the filling as a cathode and your saliva is an electrolyte "salt bridge." The result is a galvanic cell, which releases an electrical current of up to two volts. Believe it or not, at least one researcher says chewing on tinfoil is good for you. According to the Wireless Flash News Service, researcher Miklos Gombkoto of the Hungarian Dental University of Gyor did a month-long study in which twenty, presumably broke, Hungarian college students agreed to chew aluminum foil for thirty seconds, three times a day, for $75. Gombkoto reported that the electrical charge helped kill germs in the mouth that cause bad breath and tooth decay. Feel free to experiment on your own.




See also Pop-Up Ads.

"Can you hear me now?" "I've fallen, and I can't get up!" "Guess what day it is? Hump day!" "It slices, it dices, it juliennes, call in the next half hour and get an extra knife absolutely free! Now how much would you pay?"

They shout at you, cajole you. They have grating voices, inane catch phrases, animated walking, overactive bladders, frolicking foot fungus, and lists of possible side effects including rash, sleepwalking, and death. There are people who are way too excited about discount apps and sales on office supplies, and others who nag you about things like ring around the collar, knocks and pings, blackheads, and that little itch that could be telling them you have dandruff. You already have a mother, thank you very much.

You'd think advertisers would do everything in their power to get on your good side. Not so. Advertisers today have quite a task to get your attention. Every day the average American is bombarded with 360 advertising messages per day across all media. When you add brand impressions—things like a logo on a t-shirt or bag—it jumps up to 5,000. Of those, only 100 or so make any kind of impression at all. You entirely forget having seen the rest. This is a problem for marketers. If they can't get your attention, they fail. In the same way that stepping on a piece of glass is more memorable than stepping on a feather, a commercial that insults your intelligence, rattles your ears, or otherwise annoys you is more likely to be remembered.

Some of the finest examples of the annoying genre came out of the 1970s when our attention spans were just starting to get really taxed. That's when Ron Popeil came on the scene. His Ronco direct television spots were made with a shoestring budget. Popeil wanted to use every second of his $7.50-a-minute time so he spoke as fast as he could, edited out pauses for breath and sped the whole thing up mechanically. The hyper-pitch sold Veg-O-Matics, Mr. Dentist, the Pocket Fisherman, and Mr. Microphone "Hey baby, I'll be back to pick you up later!" The commercials presented a problem and an "as seen on TV" product that was the solution.

"Play this game with yourself," Popeil told the Palm Beach Post. "Pick any object on your desk. First, come up with a scenario of all the problems that product solves. Then introduce the product. Then show how the product works. Then tell the customer how to buy the product. Do that in 30 seconds' time, and it sounds like someone's trying to shove this thing down your throat."

Another company, Dial Media, followed in Ronco's footsteps. They took a knife and gave it the Japanese-sounding name Ginsu. To the hyper hard sell they added a new twist, freebies. Buy a Ginsu knife and you get a cleaver, a bread knife, table knives—but wait, there's more!—a set of spoons. These folks were the forerunners. They blazed a trail for today's infomercials and home shopping networks. Let's face it, if they weren't presented to you on late night TV would you ever think you needed a Chia Pet, the Clapper, spray-on hair, or a singing robot fish? Now how much would you pay?




See also Cockroaches, Fleas, Flies, Gnats, Mosquitoes.

Ah spring. The flowers grow once more, the sun shines… and your kitchen is suddenly swarming with ants. They're everywhere, and they just keep coming.

Why do ants suddenly appear in such large numbers in spring? Over the winter, ants stay in their underground nests. They subsist on the stores of food they collected over the summer. When it gets warm, the population swells and the workers head out once again to collect nourishment. A crumb that is barely noticeable to a human is a tasty feast for an ant.

According to the trade magazine Pest Control, homeowners now rank ants ahead of cockroaches as their biggest insect headache. It's good news for the pest control business. They call ants the industry's most "economically important pest." Still, ant control seems to be "starting from ground zero," Dr. William Robinson, president of Urban Pest Ants reported.

Most of the ants you see indoors are female workers who live in colonies outdoors. If you observe them for long, you will see that they are marching to and from a food source and carrying nourishment out of your home back to the queen. When a worker ant comes across food, she starts secreting pheremones from an abdominal gland. Other ants follow the scent and reinforce it with their own trails. As the food is exhausted, the ants stop secreting and the trail dries up. They are so guided by the scent that if you were to wipe your finger across it and create a break in the path, the ants traveling in both directions would come to a complete stop.

Poisonous sprays are strangely satisfying, but they don't work in the long run. You get to see a few worker ants fall on their backs and die, but the poison never makes it back to the queen. As soon as their friends find the way back, you'll see ants again.

There are other reasons to avoid sprays. As many as 500 species of the most common household insects are now resistant to many of the most widely used insecticides according to Sheila Daar, executive director of the Bio-Integral Resource Center in Berkley, California. They can still be dangerous to humans, especially children.

Ant traps work by offering a supply of poisoned food in a dosage small enough to make it back to the nest. If the baits are too strong and you see dead ants around it, leave them where they are; eventually, other ants will take their corpses back to the nest where they will poison the colony. Dead ants have their own pheromone, 10-octadecenoic acid. Ants treat a dead peer as if it were living until they smell the acid. Then they take the body to the dead ant dumping ground. If you put the acid on a living ant, the other ants will pick it up and dump it as well. The discarded ant will return only to be carried off again until the acid evaporates.

Instead of spraying, see if you can figure out where the ants are coming from. You can block the entry with a glob of petroleum jelly or toothpaste. Then clean up their path with soapy water. This will eliminate the chemical trails the scouts left for other workers.




See also Inefficient Sidewalk Pass, Standing Too Close.


On Sale
Sep 12, 2017
Page Count
272 pages

Laura Lee

About the Author

Laura Lee is the author of several books, which include Blame It on the Rain: How Weather Has Changed History. Laura lives in Michigan where she divides her time between writing and producing ballet educational tours with Russian ballet star Valery Lantratov.

Meredith Hamilton
has illustrated nine books in the Child’s Intro series. Her other illustration work includes apps for children, cookbooks, and Steuben glass. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.

Learn more about this author