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Oct. 10 1997 3:30 AM

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Don't Believe the Hype

Cullen Murphy is so good that it really stands out when he blows it, as he does in "Too Much of a Good Thing." Hype derives from hyperbole, and when it came into use in the '60s, it was used, in much the way overhyped is used today, to refer to something praised far in excess of its value ("Sergeant Pepper has been hyped as a masterpiece, but the fact is, most of the songs on it aren't of the first rank").

Once the provenance of hype has been established, you can discard Murphy's elaborate apparatus for explaining overhyped. That ghastly neologism is just the latest example of the peculiar American tendency toward tautological idioms. Similar excrescences include: preplanning and its business familiar, advance planning (when the heck else are you going to plan something--after the fact?); and my own special hate, self-confessed (if someone else is doing your confessing for you, honey, it ain't a confession). Yes, yes, I understand that self-confessed follows the path laid down by perfectly acceptable terms like self-professed and self-avowed; I still hate it.

Well, I'm glad that's straightened out.


--Harris CollingwoodNew York City

Cullen Murphy replies: Harris Collingwood's letter is one of many I have received that would derive hype from hyperbole rather than more circuitously from the hype derived from hypodermic, and thus from the idea of stimulation associated with drug use. I stand my ground, though. Yes, at first glance, this alternative derivation would seem to make sense, because hype sort of sounds like hyperbole and sort of means hyperbole. It would also seem to make sense that frosh would be derived from freshman, since it sort of sounds like freshman and sort of means freshman. But it isn't.

Hype in the sense of excessive or false publicity goes back much further than the 1960s (Collingwood's suggested decade of origin)--to at least the 1920s (per the Oxford English Dictionary), which is the same time that hype is attested to as a verb and noun associated with drug use, and the word is explicitly linked to hypodermic. The OED, the Dictionary of American Slang, the Barnhart Dictionary of New English, and the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang all make the hypodermic connection. None of them makes a hyperbole connection. William Safire in his New Political Dictionary writes: "Investing a minor occurrence with false importance is called 'hype' or 'media hype,' from the euphoric kick one gets from an injection of a narcotic with a hypodermic needle."

I asked J.E. Lighter, the editor of the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (whose volume containing "H" words has just been published), about the possibility that hype was derived from hyperbole. His immediate response was, "I very much doubt that." He went on to note that "hyperbole comes from a rather elevated level of diction for the kinds of people who begin using the word hype." He did observe that the existence of the word hyperbole could well be offering hype a certain reinforcement. "Once a word comes into circulation," Lighter said, "its survival is based in part on all of the associations it brings to mind."


(Frosh, by the way, seems to have come from the German for "frog"--it was a 19th-century nickname for members of an entering class of German university students.)

Jingoistic Java Juggernaut

I am very disappointed by Andrew Shuman's "Weak Java." If you want to look like a propaganda organ of Microsoft, about the best thing you could do would be to publish an article about a very hotly contested industry issue, take Microsoft's side, and support your point with misinformation and untruths.

The most egregious example was Shuman's statement that Sun's plan to make Java faster is to make "Java into an operating system." This is entirely and totally wrong, and anyone paying any attention to what's going on with Java would know this. I am really appalled.


Slate is certainly free to come out on any side of any issue, but when it comes to an issue in which Microsoft has a huge financial stake, I think the least we readers can ask is that you take care to learn the basic facts of the matter and check that what's in the article is at least remotely plausible.

--Daniel WeinrebArlington, Mass.

Andrew Shuman replies: This letter is one of the nicer ones I have received in the past two weeks. I had two goals for my article: first, to explain what Java is; and second, to debunk the Java hype. I can only gather by the voluminous responses to my article that I was successful in touching a few nerves. I would like to quote myself on two points readers seem to have overlooked: 1) "I work for Microsoft" and 2) "Java is cool."

First off, to all you speed demons who claim Java will soon be as fast as C/C++ and who rightly point to some of the work on making Java much faster: You are half-right. There is a great deal of effort afoot to make Java faster (just-in-time compilation, native-code generation, etc.). However Java will never be as fast as straight C/C++; there are too many rich features of the language (garbage collection, array-and-string bounds checking, dynamically loaded classes) for it to ever be as fast as raw C/C++. Yes, I agree that the differences will shrink, but they will still be with us. Furthermore, Java will never work well on more memory-constrained systems because of the large overhead of these features. I apologize for having the wrong ratio in how slow current Java implementations are. It is indeed now only three times as slow as native code, not 20 times slower as I stated.


Second: Many readers have pointed out how great Java is; I agree! Java makes code easier to write, but at a cost--and that cost will always be with us. Java should rightly be compared to Visual Basic and other tools meant for rapid development of applications. It should not be compared with C/C++, however. This is the comparison most Java pundits make; therefore, it was the comparison I chose to highlight. I have not found any examples of truly complicated robust applications written in Java. The only thing that came close was Corel's office suite, and it was w-a-y t-o-o s-l-o-w.


I was under the impression that the purpose of Slate's dialogues was to allow two well-informed people with opposing views to duke out a topic at length. Why, then, in your Promise Keepers "Dialogue," have you chosen two Promise Keepers cheerleaders to face off on the burning question "Are the Promise Keepers totally wonderful, or only mostly wonderful?" The last time I checked, 45 percent of Slate voters were taking the position that the Promise Keepers are not a healthy phenomenon. Maybe their side should be represented in the discussion.

--Melanie DexterEmmaus, Pa.

I Ain't Gonna Work on Marlboro's Farm No More

In "Smokey and the Bandits," I agree with most of the points, but it seems to me that Stephen Chapman ignores the fundamental dilemma of the tobacco farmer. If he's living on 100 acres surrounded by other tobacco farmers, just how does he change his crop? He needs more land. He can only buy it from other tobacco farmers, thereby putting them out of business. One way or another many tobacco farmers are forced out of their livelihood.

--Rod AllenMountain View, Calif.

Religious Extremists

Congratulations to Seth Stevenson on "Extreme Prejudice," a terrific piece on the lunacy associated with "extreme" activities. The inordinate attention granted to these activities by the advertising-driven media is merely another symptom of the triumph of form over substance that characterizes today's America. Participants in this nonsense have lost their ability to enjoy physical activities just for fun and the satisfaction derived from a good, hard workout. They feed their resultant emptiness with manic, life-threatening, competitive pursuits that become substitutes for their sense of self worth. These sorts of things once seemed to be restricted to 20-year-old boys and middle-aged dorks going through midlife crises. Now it seems that the disease has cut a swath through a much broader sector of the population, and no longer requires testosterone poisoning as a condition of entry.

--Mark ProulxDes Moines, Wash.

New Media 1, Old Media 0

All of a sudden the New Republic and The Nation bore me to tears. They sit on my nightstand until I chuck them. I just figured out that it's Slate's fault. Every issue is interesting; I read every article. Your links are wonderful. Most of my bookmarks are Slate links that I would never have thought to look for otherwise. Thank you.

--Ingrid Peters

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