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While writing a short story in which a computer programmer betrays his company, I brought up an event where Henry (the programmer) cleverly gets into the company's billing software and pads a few bills. For this, he needed to understand the entire system first.

I know a word, a verb in fact, 'exploit.' Now, this means to make a productive use of something. So, I wrote,

Kane was shocked seeing Henry who was still dedicatedly working on the computer even after everyone else had left. It was not the kind of thing he usually did. Kane walked down to him and casually asked the reason, to which Henry replied that he was just exploiting the new billing software.

While confirming the meaning of the word, I was shocked to see a meaning of the same verb that said something completely opposite. 'exploit' means to use something in an unfair way for your own advantage.

All dictionaries support that 'exploit' means ....

to use something unfairly for your advantage, and
to use something fairly for your advantage!

I referred MW for the same.

Now, this sparks a question in my mind. What if a word has two exactly opposite meanings? How would one guess the meaning then?

The negative meaning of exploit actually destroys the suspense of the story as Henry was actually manipulating the software for his own advantage! :(

Edit:

I see that people have started digressing. Let's not get into the nuance of what Henry's profession is. The question is about a word with both positive and negative meanings and how it creates confusion. While I did not want to reveal the truth of Henry betraying the firm, using 'exploit' created that effect.

  • 9
    As a footnote, a word that has two "opposite" meanings is called a contranym (also auto-autonym, or Janus word. (Another one similar to exploit is appropriate, which can mean "to set aside for some purpose", or "to take without permission".) You can learn more about contranyms on Wikipedia as well as other places on the web (like here). – J.R. Jun 8 '18 at 9:31
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    @Mari-LouA - Actually, it can be spelled as contronym or contranym – although your spelling seems to be more common in published books. – J.R. Jun 8 '18 at 9:45
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    This isn't really a full answer, but in this case I feel like the answer is "dictionaries don't give you all the information". In my idiolect at least, "exploit" is almost always negative, but I concede it has a rare positive meaning when context would allow no negative interpretation. – Mark S. Jun 8 '18 at 12:02
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    Just an FYI. "It was not a kind of him," is not a phrase that I understand. I believe you are saying, "It was not normal for him [to be working late]." There are many ways to say it but the way you said it is not one I am familiar with. – EllieK Jun 8 '18 at 13:18
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    @EllieK Yes, and "It was not like him" or, "It was unlike him" a common way to say this. In this case, kind and like are not interchangeable. – jpaugh Jun 8 '18 at 16:55

11 Answers 11

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This is indeed a difficult question. And I'm afraid the answer is entirely based on context. "Exploit," like the synonymous "take advantage of," is so often used in the "bad" sense that it's sometimes hard, even for native English speakers, to remember that there is a "good" sense.

But if the text seems to be implying that the person was clever and didn't hurt anybody, it's probably being used in the "good" sense. If the text implies, in some way, that other people might have been harmed, or that it was somehow shady or criminal, it's being used in the "bad" sense.

If the text seems neutral and doesn't provide enough clues, people are likely to assume it's the "bad" sense.

If a person or people are the object of "exploit," you can almost always rely on its being the "bad" sense, because using people, in any way, is usually considered "bad."

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    This. "Exploit" is taken in the bad sense by default. It's usually only when there's a clear benefit without harming anyone that it's positive. – jpmc26 Jun 9 '18 at 10:07
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    This is a good terse answer, with a good focus on how 'exploit' is generally associated with manipulation. It really should mention the computing sense of the term which others below have brought up. That's precisely how the term will be understood in terms of a hacker: not even manipulating the billing program to nefarious ends, but exploiting its vulnerabilities to affect some other network or software. It creates a Chekovian gun that the reader is going to be annoyed about once it never goes off. – lly Jun 10 '18 at 15:51
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    @lly Thanks. I agree that that meaning is important, but since others have covered that, I think I'll leave my answer alone. It's loosely covered in my answer, I think. If a text says "exploiting software vulnerabilities" with no other explanation, readers will assume something shady is going on. If it's some spy novel, where a hacker exploits vulnerabilities in a government's software to prevent world nuclear annihilation, that's good. Also note, the OP's description sounds like hacking: "cleverly gets into the company's billing software and pads a few bills," so maybe that gun will go off. – joiedevivre Jun 10 '18 at 18:15
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Context is King!

Always consider the context, that is the surrounding words, sentences, passages. Just the other day a question here asked about the word "desire" and whether this could have negative or positive connotations, because it can denote ambition, but also greed.

If a word has duality of meaning and the text does not make it clear which it is then this is the fault of the writer. So as a writer, always make sure you use words in the correct context. As a reader, try to determine the intended meaning from the context. But if as a reader you find it impossible, it doesn't mean you lack understanding of some intricate rule of English - it more likely means the writer wasn't thinking.

  • The fault, or the intent. :) One might use a word with dual meanings intentionally, and deliberately leave the meaning ambiguous...to say different things on different levels at the same time, or to make a joke (puns do this often), or to drop a hint to the reader, for examples. – cHao Jun 8 '18 at 19:15
  • It's true that context is king, but I'm not sure how it helps the OP. The OP clearly isn't able to discern the meaning from the context. As written, it would always be taken in the negative sense. – jpmc26 Jun 9 '18 at 10:05
  • @jpmc26 because the OP asked "how to determine the intended meaning" and the answer is "context". There isn't any rule that can determine this. If you know a way to know the intended meaning of a word out of context they by all means make an answer. – Astralbee Jun 10 '18 at 10:29
  • Fwiw, 'ambition' and 'greed' are both generally negative terms. – lly Jun 10 '18 at 10:34
  • @lly What if it is your ambition, or desire, to set up a charity? This isn't even related to this question. – Astralbee Jun 11 '18 at 8:40
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Great discovers both the duality in exploit and the existence of the concept contranym.

As an I.T professional, let me suggest you two less controversial words to replace exploit that sound innocuous: testing and debugging (and that avoid repeating work all over the place).

which Henry said that he was just testing/debugging the new billing software.

And let me recommend you a film about programmers that hack their own company software: Office Space. I love Milton!

Milton from movie Office Space

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    A new angle...+1 for that. :) – Maulik V Jun 8 '18 at 10:50
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    This solution sounds more credible and realistic than my own. – Mari-Lou A Jun 10 '18 at 8:10
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As many users have already mentioned, context is all-important to disambiguate meaning. But I would like to approach the problem from a slightly different angle. The OP tells us that Henry is a programmer who has entered (hacked into?) the company's billing software...

Kane walked down to him and casually asked the reason, to which Henry replied that he was just exploiting the new billing software.

In place of exploiting, I'd use the verb work + on

…he was just working on the new billing software.

To exploit a new programme sounds similar to abusing it for one's own selfish needs and purposes. In order to put a positive spin, one could say "I'm exploiting the software's full potential" but that wouldn't sound very natural in the context of the story supplied by the OP.

Oxford Dictionaries say

work verb 1. Be engaged in physical or mental activity in order to achieve a result; do work.

  • ‘an engineer who was working on a design for a more efficient wing’
  • ‘My dad works during the day, but when he's home he's usually working on his car or playing ball with my brothers.’
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    Given that the OP has revealed that Henry has nefarious intent, I might suggest: Henry said that he was just experimenting with the new billing software. This would sound innocuous enough at the beginning of the story – at least, more so than exploit. (As a verb, experiment means "try out new ways of doing things.") – J.R. Jun 8 '18 at 9:38
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    @joiedevivre the OP says that Henry is a programmer, I don't know what the OP means by "pad a few bills" but to work on something (i.e. software) seems to fit. If Henry is only accessing the software, then you're right "work with" is better. Context...context...context! – Mari-Lou A Jun 8 '18 at 9:38
  • @J.R. "working on" a programme, if you are a computer programmer by profession does not sound suspicious in the slightest. Henery is only doing his job :) – Mari-Lou A Jun 8 '18 at 10:32
  • Notice that Henry was already "working on" the workstation. Too much "work" in the same paragraph, isn't it? Maybe a synonym fits better. – RubioRic Jun 8 '18 at 10:32
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    ...*who was at his workstation*... would solve the double references to "work" – Mari-Lou A Jun 8 '18 at 10:32
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Whether something is fair or not is a matter of personal opinion. A good writer would provide adequate clues for the reader about how to interpret a word like exploit at this particular stage in the plot.

If that's not possible within the scope of the dialogue, it would be better to use a different word.

  • For example, what clues? "He exploited the software to its maximum potential" does not sound negative to me in the slightest. But I agree that the verb used by the OP in his story is probably inappropriate. – Mari-Lou A Jun 8 '18 at 9:00
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    @Mari-LouA Inappropriate unless the OP was writing some kind of comedic thing where Henry just blatantly admits that he's doing something criminal. :) – joiedevivre Jun 8 '18 at 9:07
  • @Mari-LouA It sounds pretty negative to me. "Exploit" is also a synonym of "vulnerability" in software. I would expect that this user was at least pirating the software with such a sentence. Although honestly, it just sounds unusual no matter what it means. A more idiomatic way of making the positive statement would be, "He drew out the maximum potential of the software." – jpmc26 Jun 9 '18 at 10:10
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I would think the meaning is more "To make the absolute most of". In terms of software, or tools, this is a good thing. But to make the most of another person would mean to be cruel, manipulative, and to take advantage of, which would fit that definition you provided.

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You might consider that in the context of computer hacking, "exploit" has a third meaning, which probably hasn't made it into most dictionaries yet. An "exploit" is taking advantage of a particular security vulnerability in software (or sometimes hardware). See for instance "zero-day exploit": https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zero-day_(computing)

So unless Henry is being deliberately sarcastic, a fellow programmer would understand that Henry is somehow making use of a security vulnerability in the billing software, so he would not say this. Instead, he might say that he's learning the new software, experimenting with it, or playing with it (and got interested which is why he didn't notice that everyone else had left - I've done that more than once, though I admit not with billing software :-)).

Also, I would work on your wording a bit in other places. "working on the workstation" is somewhat redundant, and not what a native speaker would say. Perhaps just "still working" or "still at his workstation". And "It was not a kind of him" is not right. A native speaker would probably say "It wasn't like him.", perhaps adding "at all" depending on how emphatic you want to be.

  • As a footnote, that additional meaning has made it into Wkitionary: exploit (n.) A program or technique that exploits a vulnerability in other software. – J.R. Jun 8 '18 at 18:07
  • It's made it into the OED. First cite is to 1994. – lly Jun 10 '18 at 15:48
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The issue as I see it is that this word is simply neutral: it does not intrinsically have either connotation. To "exploit" something just means that you are using it in a way that specifically benefits yourself; it is self-serving use.

Now, in some circumstances we recognize a healthy self-interest. Often one speaks of exploiting a "opportunity" in precisely this way, or more broadly a situation. If someone said "Twitter is involved in a scandal today, let's exploit that to get more of our friends on Mastodon..." then nobody would really view that as a negative thing. But even situational things can be exploited for unrelated purposes in a negative way -- I'm thinking specifically about if you said for example "Then-NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani exploited the September 11th tragedy for his own political purposes," you would not be making a positive statement.

Things get more ambiguous when we talk about exploiting a resource, and then it really depends on whether it's a shared resource or a private one. If you say "yeah she's a manager now, it really lets her exploit all of her people-skills" then that's clearly positive. Those skills are hers. Similarly "He got a big bonus from the company and he's going to exploit that money to continue his education" -- it sounds like that money is his. But it would be hard to hear "He's always exploiting the fact that we don't measure disk usage on the shared network drive" as anything other than a criticism, because that's a shared resource.

Finally things become more consistently negative when we talk about exploiting people, and I think that's because it's intrinsically dehumanizing to be talked about as if you are a resource to be used. If someone exploits a tangential aspect of you like your love of cats or your weakness for chocolate or your enjoyment of a good joke, then that is much better than if they exploit some deeper personality trait like your generosity or your paranoia or your loneliness, and in turn those are much better than if they straight-out exploit you. It's just that self-identity is like an onion of layers, and the innermost layers are the ones most dehumanized when we speak of them as an object of use.

  • Excellently balanced answer. This opened up many aspects of the usage. +1 – Maulik V Jun 10 '18 at 5:10
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The meanings of words can shift with time. For example 'gay' used to mean (something such as) 'bright and festive' but now (in my experience, at least) nobody uses it with that meaning any more.

The same seems to have happened to 'exploit'. As your dictionary indicates, it has (or used to have) both positive and negative meanings; in current common use, however, I think it would be rare to encounter it used with a positive meaning.

Regarding the OP's question: How to guess the correct meaning? - my answer would be: don't guess.

If you are in the place of having to guess at a word's meaning, you probably have too little experience of its actual use and you could just as easily guess a 'wrong' (not commonly used) meaning as you could guess the 'right' meaning.

Instead of guessing, I recommend reading. Find a dozen, or (safer) a hundred documents (books, articles, even tweets) that use the word and see what the context in which it is used can tell you.

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    I must disagree with the assertion that it would be "rare" to see exploit used with a positive meaning. I just Googled "exploit the features of" and got plenty of hits, the bulk of which seem both positive and contemporary. The same thing happens when you change the word features in that query to ability or power or advantages of. I recommend reading Scientific American's 2013 article entitled How to Exploit the Power of Diverse Minds for starters; nothing sinister going on there. – J.R. Jun 8 '18 at 17:35
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I do not believe "exploit" has two contradictory meanings. It does seem to have two contradictory definitions, but it is important to remember that words predate dictionaries, and have a cultural meaning that may not be captured by the definition.

That being said, you can occasionally get a bit of insight by looking at the word's etmyology. "Exploit" comes from the Latin explicare meaning "to unfold." So it's natural to guess that there is some connection between exploiting something and unfolding it.

Of course, you can't literally unfold software, but what do you think that would mean, figuratively? Sizing it up. Opening its hidden areas. Handling something carefully yet with a certain adriotness. But it is also something that is a bit destructive; when you unfold an origami, it ceases to exist, just as exploiting a natural resource can harm it. Also, a story's plot unfolds, so unfolding something takes away its secrets. It lays things open, prone, and vulnerable. Ready to be used.

If you think of the word that way, it suits both of your definitions just fine. It's not that the word has two opposite meanings; it's just that the definitions don't do the word full justice, each capturing different aspects of the same thing.

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"Expoit" isn't the best example

While dictionaries do have both meanings, few people would accept the word in a wholly positive context. It has been used so much in the negative, that it always bears the burden of that negative to some degree. Thus, when suggesting that a clever employee "exploited" a company product for greater profit, it still has that nagging, "you took advantage of something that was unintended by the product's creators."

A better example is the word "deserve."

I don't deserve my wife, and she certainly doesn't deserve me!

Both uses of "deserve" are self-deprecating (intentionally reducing your self-worth compared to others), but contextually they are self-deprecating in very different ways.

The first clause suggests "I'm not worthy" and reflects the idea that the husband got the better deal in the marriage. It's considered a positive statement, a humble statement that elevates the worth of the wife above her husband (especially in a traditionally male-oriented culture).

The second clause suggests "I'm a problem" and reflects the idea that the marriage is unfair in that the wife is carrying a burden (due to the husband's inadequacies, such as laziness) that shouldn't be born in a marriage of equals. In this context, the word is decidedly negative, a derisive statement that may mean something should be done to rectify a problem.

The effect of the sentence is humorous as it reflects an old "woman=angel/godly, man=devilish/worldly" concept that the listener is expected to intrinsically disbelieve.

The point I'm making is that without context, you can't tell the difference

The only way you can easily determine which definition to use is by the context of the sentence containing the word. However, this is problematic as many contextual circumstances (such as the example I used) are highly cultural and not easily subjected to predictable rules.

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    I love your example with the word 'deserve'. That said, I can't upvote an answer that claims exploit "has been used so much in the negative, that it always bears the burden of that negative to some degree." We'll have to agree to disagree on that point – although I will concede that your remark about how many folks might have trouble accepting the word "in a wholly positive context" is probably valid to some degree. (The downvote isn't mine, btw.) – J.R. Jun 10 '18 at 10:26
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    @J.R. no problem. I suspect how negatively "expoilt" is perceived will depend greatly on, for example, what industry you're involved in. Journalism? definitely negative. Oil? frequently positive. Etc. – JBH Jun 10 '18 at 15:49

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