In school, my 5th grader was learning how to use a dictionary. “Oooooh!,” I gushed automatically with enthusiasm. Dictionaries are my favorite.
“No, not, ‘oooooh,’ mamma! It’s boooorrrrrring,” they guffawed.
Because of course, the child was being taught, as we all were, that dictionaries are where we go to learn what words mean. But they’re not.
The most fundamental principle of language is that is constantly changing. A good dictionary, then, tells the history of how words have been used over time.
It is a log of the meanings we humans ascribe to our words – a reflection of our own changing cultures and values.
So I shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was recently when I looked up EXPLOIT in my favorite dictionary.
Entering English from French via Latin (evolved, unfolded) in the late 1300s, ‘exploit’ enjoyed exclusive use as a positive term for 400 years, y’all. By 1500, it is a ‘very common word’ indicating that one had used a resource as well as one possibly could.
To exploit signaled an achievement, even! It meant that you’d made full use of something – your talents, the materials at hand, etc.
|The word ‘exploit’ shifted from a positive to a negative term near the end of the Industrial Revolution – influenced by socialist sentiments in Europe and the anti-slavery movement in the US.|
The tide begins to turn around 1832, when we first see the noun exploitation form from the verb. In the U.S., it’s a period that coincides with forced removal of indigenous nations, the beginning of debates over slavery, and The Panic of 1837 – economic collapse from speculative practices.
By 1838, this linguistic shift – from praise to insult – is happening only in reference to the unfair or unethical use of human labor for profit or personal gain. (It won’t apply to environmental or cultural concerns until decades later).
In the OED’s detailed outlines of exploit and exploitation, we effectively witness the mirroring of changing public awareness in the word’s use. Gradually, these words begin to reflect the general opinion that people shouldn’t be included among all the things it’s okay to ‘use up.’
Today, though the noun persists as a synonym for achievement, any phrase that follows the verb ‘exploit’ will be negative. One might exploit vulnerabilities in software, finite natural resources, the gullibility of an audience, or the flaws in a system.
|But here’s the thing that tingles my linguistic Spidey-senses. The way ‘exploit’ was used before 1832? It’s incredibly close to how we use the word ‘leverage‘ in business today.|
Though the verb sense of ‘leverage’ to ‘use something to maximum advantage‘ doesn’t yet exist in the OED, Google had no trouble defining it for me as exactly that.
It’s phrases like ‘leverage your audience‘ or ‘leverage your brand recognition’ that tend to ruffle my feathers because one can already hear the echoes of ‘exploit’ in it.
Leverage, then, begins to sound suspiciously like a euphemism for ‘exploit’ to me. You?
That’s the word, nerd.