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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(2000’s | athletese? | “agonize (over),” “dwell (too much) on,” “make too much of”)

Another ancient word that has undergone an unlikely renaissance (cf. “ramp up” or “hurtful”). You might be surprised that this word had four definitions — three obsolete — in the OED as of 1971, the year my good old two-volume eyestrain edition was published. The latest citation dated from about 1650. Noah Webster didn’t bother with it in his great dictionary of 1828. Nor does it appear in my Random House unabridged, second ed. (1993), Webster’s Third (1993) or American Heritage fourth ed. (2000). None of the OED definitions bears any resemblance to how we use the word now, except no. 4, “exhaust oneself with too much thinking,” which is in the ballpark.

And yet, this word was around in the 1970’s, apparently available for spot use whenever a writer got desperate (or creative) enough. Harry L. Coles described America’s post-war military policy as defined by an “era of over-think” (i.e., people with insufficient military experience spending too much time theorizing about what the army ought to do or how it ought to work). Eric Jensen, in the Ultimate Study Guide for Students (1979), used it as an analogue to “overlook”: “Make an effort to not ‘overthink’ or avoid personal problems, and they will become less worry for you.” And you could also find the word as we use it now, often by athletes; here’s an example from Willie Mays’s My Life in and out of Baseball (1972): “You take a lot of things into consideration, playing in the outfield, but, like anything else, you can overthink it.” Here, it’s related to the athlete’s original use of “no-brainer.”

It sounds very strange to my ear as a noun, but it was, and still is, sometimes used that way. It implies unnecessarily complicated schemes or arguments, or just spending too much time in your own head. As a verb, it has picked up a transitive use that was uncommon before 1990, Willie Mays as quoted above notwithstanding. A rueful athlete would say he tends to overthink a couple of decades ago, but now he’s more likely to say “overthink it” or “overthink things.” I myself have a little voice in my head that says, “Don’t overthink this,” the object being necessary.

In a way, it’s a shame that the sense of inability to make a decision or find a solution caused by too much contemplation — according to Bartlett’s concordance, the word does not occur in Shakespeare, but wasn’t that Hamlet’s fatal flaw? — has taken over. “Overthink” has many possible analogues, not just “overdo,” “overtax,” or “overlook.” How about “overmatch” or “overcome” (“She overthought her opponent and won the debate”)? What about “overuse” or “overdraw”: “He’s trying to solve the problem, but he just isn’t smart enough, and he keeps overthinking his mental capacity.” “Overturn” or “overrule”? “The appeals court overthought the district judge’s reasoning.” (O.k., that’s really just “rethink” in disguise.) Have a thing for reflexive verbs? “Every time I overthink myself I miss out on something good.” See? It’s easy and fun. Create your own!


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