Overhyped and too simplistic

By Robert Wright, Dec 21 2019

You know those old people who are always seeing signs of civilization’s collapse in the way patterns of English usage are changing? You don’t? Well you do now!

Let me call your attention to this recent headline from no less an arbiter of linguistic propriety than the New York Times Book Review: “Is Blockchain Technology Overhyped?”

Now, when I was a boy, to “hype” something meant… well, let’s consult the actual dictionary I bought when I was in seventh grade, the Second College Edition of the Webster’s New World Dictionary: “to stimulate, excite, enlighten, etc., artificially by or as by the injection of a narcotic drug.” [emphasis added] Twelve years after buying that dictionary, when I got my first job at a newspaper, I discovered that this meaning of the term was alive and well, as reflected in a specifically journalistic usage: For a reporter to “hype” a story was to overstate it, to write it up in a way that exaggerated its actual significance (typically in hopes of getting it on the front page). 

Before I proceed with my jeremiad, let’s pause to note an etymological irony: though to “hype” a story means to overstate it, the word derives not from the root hyper, which means “over,” as in “hyperbole,” but from the root hypo, which means “under,” as in “the hypodermic [under-the-skin] needle that brings the artificial stimulation.” OK, enough irony—now back to my jeremiad.

So, if to “hype” something means to overstate it, then to “overhype” something is to “over-overstate” it. Which is, well, a bit much, right? Even flat-out redundant? 

And yet, such is the pace of civilization’s decline that the decade now drawing to a close has seen growth in the use of “overhype.” Actually, I don’t know that; my go-to source for changes in the frequency of word use, the Google Books Ngram Viewer, seems not to chart data past 2008 (presumably because many recent books aren’t in the Google database). But I can say that between 1980 and 2008 use of the word “overhyped” grew by a factor of 25. Not 25 percent—2,500 percent! And I can say that the curve charting this growth was, as of 2008, still headed (slightly) upward.

So why would you add two syllables to a word when the resulting meaning is what the word meant before you added the syllables? What has gotten into Americans younger than me? I mean, next thing you know, they’ll be taking the word “simplistic,” which means “too simple,” and putting “too” in front of it: “too simplistic”—that is, “too too simple.”

Oh, wait—that crime, too, is being prolifically committed. A Google search for “too simplistic” yields 1.5 million results, and in some cases the crime trail leads to such guardians of usage as the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the Atlantic.

Usage evolves—I get that. But, ideally, wouldn’t it evolve toward efficiency—like, using fewer syllables to express something, not more syllables? 

No jeremiad about the interconnected declines of the English language and civilization would be complete without a theory about the precise connection. How’s this:

The reason “over” was added to “hype” is that we live in a culture so full of hype, of blatantly over-the-top promotion and self-promotion, that the word “hype,” by itself, seemed inadequate to convey an abnormal amount of such inflation. And, similarly, the reason “too” was added to simplistic is that we live in a time of such facile, reductive thinking that “simplistic” is now the norm.  

What do you think? Too simple? 

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