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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(businese | “risk”)

A word of many uses in everyday language to which one has been added in the last forty years. A quick review of the wide range of meanings this term had in the seventies, say:

a. the act of learning about or experiencing a stimulus, especially an unfamiliar one (“exposure to jazz, French culture, etc.”); goes with “to”

b. the direction your window, etc. faces (“southern exposure”); no preposition

c. for photographers, it meant how much light came in before the shutter closed, or simply a frame of film that had already been shot (you could even have a double exposure, and that’s no double entendre)

d. inadequate covering of body parts not normally displayed, voluntarily (“indecent exposure”) or involuntarily (“die of exposure”); no preposition

e. personal embarrassment caused by no-longer-secret conduct (e.g., “he was disgraced by his exposure as a tax cheat”); goes with “of”

f. attention from the popular press, what one gets when one is a celebrity; no preposition

g. potential harm caused by ingesting or absorbing hazardous substances from the environment (such as sunlight or air pollution or radiation); goes with “to”

And now there’s

h. financial risk caused by heavy investments in a weak sector, or just too much debt; goes with “to.” Probably a descendant of g., or at least that’s the one it most closely resembles. In the aftermaths of the 2008 crash, and the 2000 crash, and the 1987 crash, and the 1981 crash, we’ve gotten used to the idea of toxic financial instruments and practices, and this usage is a natural outgrowth. While “exposure” had this meaning well before 1980 in financial jargon, the increased fragility of the U.S. economy in recent decades has no doubt helped push it outward into the general vocabulary. (Even in a purely financial context, it also partakes somewhat of e. If it partakes likewise of d., you’re in bad shape; even a good lawyer won’t be able to do much.)

One way to sort definitions d. through h. is to place each one by its potential for undesirable results. With e. and g. and most likely h., you’re worse off than you would have been otherwise, but d. and f. may cut both ways. Exposure of the body may subject you to injury, or it may give you the warped satisfaction of forcing another person to participate unwillingly in your sexual gratification. Even in the latter case, you’re still vulnerable, to arrest if nothing else. As for f., today’s darling of the gossip pages is tomorrow’s disgrace, if e. kicks in and your secret vice is found out. It may not be that dramatic; a celebrity may fall from favor simply by attracting too much attention (“overexposure”). It may be fun at first, but any kind of exposure ultimately invites danger to one’s reputation, or even one’s life.

This week’s term, with its implication that one has been caught doing something wrong, points to a peculiarity of English: we don’t have a reliable word for revealing hidden good deeds rather than hidden malfeasance. “Expose,” “unmask,” “uncover,” “reveal” itself — they all imply that one has been up to no good. “Unveiling” might work, but we use that more often about statues than about people. I was thinking about this as I tried to translate a German title that included the phrase “Enttarnung eines Helden.” “Introducing a hero” or “Exhuming a hero” might get the point across, but the first is imprecise and the second ghoulish. “Recovering a hero” has an unfortunate association with upholstery. How do you reveal that someone has acted heroically when the available verbs suggest villainy?


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