The Grammarphobia Blog

Pictures at an exhibition

Q: This has been driving me nuts. No one can answer me: Are the words “exhibit” and “exhibition” interchangeable sometimes? For instance, “I’m going to an art exhibit/exhibition.”

A: When I worked at the New York Times, editors on the Culture Desk used “exhibition” for the show and “exhibit” for something being shown. So a reporter would write, “The exhibition’s most popular exhibit was the dinosaur skeleton.”

But the Times stylebook didn’t (and still doesn’t) deal with this “exhibit/exhibition” business, and dictionaries say a show itself can indeed be termed an “exhibit.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), for example, gives “exhibit” as one of the meanings of “exhibition,” and “exhibition” as one of the meanings of “exhibit.”

In fact, the use of “exhibit” to mean an “exhibition” isn’t a particularly recent phenomenon, at least not in the United States and Canada.

The Oxford English Dictionary, which describes the usage as North American, has published references dating back to the 1890s. Here’s one from an 1894 guide to a farm exhibition in California: “The following are the groups into which the exhibit in the Agricultural building is divided.”

The OED also has a few published references, dating from the late 18th century, for “exhibition” used in the sense of “exhibit.” A citation from around 1790, for example, refers to some “excellent prints” as “exhibitions.”

Interestingly, the word “exhibitionism” has occasionally been used to mean a mania for exhibitions, but the OED says this sense of the word is rare.

The more usual sense is, in the dictionary’s words: “Indecent exposure of the sexual organs, esp. as a manifestation of sexual perversion. Also fig. and gen., a tendency towards display; indulgence in extravagant behaviour.”

The first OED citation is from an 1893 translation of Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis, which refers to the “hereditary and degenerate impulsive exhibitionism” of a man who exposes himself to “young, voluptuous women.”

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