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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(2010’s | therapese? | “be overeager,” “say too much”)

I believe I heard this word for the first time last year. The first use I found in LexisNexis dated back to 1998, and it turned up occasionally after 2000. In 2008, Webster’s New World Dictionary named it Word of the Year: “the name given to ‘TMI (too much information),’ whether willingly offered or inadvertently revealed. It is the word for both the tedious minutiae on personal websites and blogs and the accidental slips of the tongue in public (or even private) situations. Both a verb and a noun . . . ” The term has always, in its short life, had an affinity with social media and on-line communication generally, but it isn’t restricted to embarrassing e-revelations; the word may also be used to describe someone’s behavior in old-fashioned conversation. In fast circles nowadays, you can use “overshare” as an interjection, exactly as one used “TMI” ten years ago.

One way “overshare” differs from “TMI” is that you use it to denote a leak of information that leads to fraud or identity theft (or even burglary — I’ve heard tell of people who noted on Facebook when and how long they would be away from home and returned to find someone had ripped them off). An “overshare” may have nothing to do with personal hygiene or medical history, in other words, but it has a damaging impact all the same. Here again, the connection with social media is clear. The connection may be reinforced by the knowledge that an English company, Exonar, makes a product called “Social Overshare” designed to protect companies against employees’ (presumably unintentional) leaks of sensitive data.

The expression is often applied to on-line behavior, and the web is full of explanations for the phenomenon. Aside from “some people don’t know any better,” oversharing may be diagnosed as: an effort to get attention, an attempt to take a shortcut to close friendship or intimacy, or because telling others about ourselves activates pleasure centers in the brain. Whatever the cause, there is a redefinition of privacy going on here among the rising generation, a sense that practically everybody needs to know the details of your mother’s colonoscopy (or, worse, her maiden name), or how and when you pick your nose. Hard to say if this sort of thing will go out of style or become less and less noteworthy. There have always been people who said too much and cast a pall over the dinner table. Has Facebook made such behavior so commonplace that it will perforce become acceptable?

I haven’t heard anyone say, “Thanks for oversharing” yet, although someone must have. Several web sites collect examples of on-line oversharing — more small-minded sport for the wired masses — but I didn’t find Oversharers Anonymous anywhere on-line. What are we waiting for? It seems only a matter of time.

TMI (“too much information”)

(2000’s | computerese? | “more than I wanted to know,” “I wouldn’t have told that”)

I was hoping that this expression would turn out to have a simple origin (click here and scroll down to comments for some speculation). I don’t know why; we rarely get that satisfaction. Even phrases confidently attributed to this or that celebrity (I swear I saw “TMI” credited to Matthew Perry on “Friends,” which as far as I can tell is entirely baseless; another site cited Christopher Hitchens) turn out to have slithered onto the shore of everyday language from a dank, dark pond and curled around our tongues before we were aware. This one came along at the right time to be yet another internet abbreviation, but it doesn’t seem to have shown up in computerese any more often than anywhere else. The phrase probably predates the abbreviation anyway, according to my girlfriend’s (and my) recollection.

While this phrase could mean simply, “you’re telling me more than I can absorb,” and occasionally does, it almost invariably means “you’re telling me more than I want to know.” It covers embarrassment or distaste, a way to deflect a person who just doesn’t know when to shut up and avoid difficult scenes. Our need for such an expression has increased in my lifetime as we’ve placed more and more emphasis on making the culture sharing rather than shared, so it was necessary to find or invent an expression that fills that particular gap. Somewhere in the last ten or fifteen years, it became the rejoinder of choice to any intimate detail regarded as more icky than juicy.

But why doesn’t “TMI” serve as a reply to a glut of technical detail or just more data than we can use? “Too much information” is a situation we find ourselves in every day, whether we’re trying to figure out how an appliance works or following the news. The web makes it all too easy to turn up more facts or conjectures than we can possibly use or even process on almost any public issue. After 9/11, the grand poohbahs explained the failure of our multi-billion dollar system of spies and soldiers and high tech by saying, in effect, TMI. There was just too much data to sift, too many e-mails to go through. It was a plausible defense, but their proposed solution — more surveillance and more eavesdropping, trawling for more information with a still wider net — proved that they hadn’t grasped the fundamental problem. We couldn’t handle what we got, so we need to collect more — that’s a non sequitur. Unless you hire zillions more people to handle the increased load. That was the idea, but I get the feeling that the proliferation of secret, semi-secret, and semi-public agencies has outpaced the addition of competent people to the ranks of those sworn to protect us.


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