Too Much of a Good Thing

Language and how we use it.
Oct. 2 1997 3:30 AM

Too Much of a Good Thing

How much hype is overhype?

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One wouldn't have expected to see or hear the word in the coverage of Princess Diana's tragic death--the event was too sad, the word too impolite--but it might have claimed a legitimate place in the coverage of the coverage, or at least in the commentaries about the coverage of the coverage. As far as I can tell, however, the word overhype was nowhere to be found. It was like an embarrassing relative sent off to the country whose presence lingered nonetheless.

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In a culture in which the words "of our time" have become synonymous with "of the past year or so," overhype--a noun and verb meaning an excessive amount of hype, a term which itself connotes an excessive amount of orchestrated publicity--has evolved to describe one of the distinctive characteristics of our time. It is, of course, ubiquitous in the world of sport ("even though Irabu never displayed his overhyped 99-mph fastball"), of fashion ("Tommy Hilfiger, the overhyped American designer"), of trade ("overhyped and overmarketed product"), and of celebrity in general ("a brief and, she says, overhyped liaison with John F. Kennedy Jr."), but it has filtered down to unimaginable levels, much as a grande caffè latte can now be had in the coal fields of West Virginia. Not long ago a newspaper column (in the New Orleans Times-Picayune) about fishing rods contained the following sentence: "Nothing has been overhyped more in recent years than the value of ball bearings in reel construction."

Overhype is a thought-provoking term, the provocation occurring unintentionally, and in two ways. The first is etymological. My fellow Slate columnist Robert Wright asked me recently: "Isn't it slightly absurd to apply the prefix over to something whose Greek root means under?" As Wright knows, the hype in overhype probably comes from hypodermic, as in needle, the components of that term deriving from Greek words meaning "under the skin." Hypodermic led to the slang term hypo, and the association of needles with drug use gave rise to hype in the sense of "artificial stimulant," which is the direct ancestor of hype as employed in advertising and the communications media. Given the roller-coaster ride of celebrity that overhyping both promotes and describes, the stripped-down "over-under" meaning of the word may be weirdly appropriate. (Note: An alternative etymology of hype would derive the word from the Greek hyper, meaning "over," so that to overhype something is to "over-over" it--more straightforwardly logical but not nearly as evocative, in my view.)

The second provocation is conceptual: How does one match up this term and its variants (hype, underhype) with a corresponding reality? Overhype implies there is some normal level of "hypeness," like body temperature or blood pressure, which in healthy individuals and societies maintains a certain constancy, but which can rise or fall to dangerous levels. But hype itself means "intentional excess to create attention" (Webster's New World Dictionary of Media and Communications), implying that the normal level is by definition excessive. Underhype, to pursue this line of thought, could thus refer to a level that is subnormal but nonetheless sufficient to sustain life.

Apossibly fruitful tangent would be to explore the relationship between hypeness and other terms that calibrate degrees of public recognition. For example, I received a postcard some while ago announcing an exhibition of artists who are said to be "underknown," implying that knownness, like hypeness, has a normative dimension. I imagine that only after attaining the level of being fully known can one then reach for the low rung of underhyped.

The concepts of overrated and underrated inevitably intersect with this discussion, because to be described as either of these things one must display a degree both of knownness and of hypeness. In the movie Manhattan, the Woody Allen character learns that the characters played by Diane Keaton and Michael Murphy have invented something they call the Academy of the Overrated, and have filled it with, among others, Mahler, Jung, and Fitzgerald:

Keaton: Lenny Bruce ... we can't forget Lenny Bruce, can we? How about Norman Mailer?Allen: These people are all terrific--everyone that you mentioned ...Murphy: You had a great one. ...Keaton: No, I didn't have it--it was yours ... it was Heinrich Böll. ...Murphy: Oh God, we didn't want to leave out old Heinrich. ...Allen: Overrated?! Gee, what about Mozart--you guys wouldn't want to leave out Mozart--I mean as long as you're trashing people ...Keaton: Oh, well, how about Vincent Van Gogh? Or Ingmar Bergman?

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T he permutations of ratedness are complex. It is, of course, easy to think of figures who are both overrated and overhyped. A far more noble category consists of those who are underrated and underhyped. The most difficult category to conceive, though it does exist, is that of figures who are underrated and also overhyped. (With some trepidation I float the name Sylvester Stallone.)

Now that hypeness has broadened into a full spectrum from underhyped to overhyped, the concept may be ready for scientific quantification. There is precedent for this not only in the hard sciences, where one would expect it, but also in the social sciences and humanities. Thus, much as we have a unit of heat, called the calorie, and a unit of light, called the lumen, social scientists have devised a unit of pain, called the dukkha, from the Pali word for "suffering." Art historians employ a unit of beauty, the helen, derived from words addressed to Helen of Troy in the Marlowe play Dr. Faustus: "Is this the face that launched a thousand ships, and burned the topless towers of Ilium?" A millihelen, then, is the amount of beauty that would launch a single ship.

The basic unit of hype would have to be the warhol, and obviously it would be equivalent to fifteen minutes of fame. A thousand warhols could be a kilowarhol or, perhaps, a jewell, after Richard Jewell, the man who generated news reports for months despite having failed to participate in the bombing at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. A milliwarhol, or about nine-tenths of a second of fame, might appropriately be named after the tyke whose rescue became a brief focus of attention last summer after he fell through the hole of an outhouse. (Nine-tenths of a second, unfortunately, was how long his name remained in my memory.)

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