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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(1980’s | journalese? advertese? | “manufactured excitement,” “hyperbole,” “puffery”; “tout,” “boost,” “oversell”)

Not eligible for the blog, strictly speaking, this word was pretty well established before 1980, but my girlfriend suggested it and being a sensible feller, I tend to do what she tells me. (It’s not the first time I’ve bent the rules; “community service” and “unintended consequences” are both terms I’ve covered even though they came along before 1980.) “Hype” was used without gloss several times even before 1960 in Billboard magazine: “What constitutes a hype? It is the launching of tunes and records with great fanfare and thousands of free promotional records to disk jockeys and juke box operators . . .” (October 29, 1955). Note that “hype” could take an indefinite article then, which is no longer possible; our ancestors used hype to mean act or instance of promoting, rather than to refer to aggregated examples of any old promotional efforts as we do today. Grammatical distinctions aside, hype involves ginning up interest by means of exaggeration; it doesn’t have to rise to the level of conscious dishonesty, but that implication is there the majority of the time (see below). The ubiquity of the catchphrase “Don’t believe the hype,” which owes its cachet to Public Enemy, indicates as much. Here are a couple of examples from the early days:

“You can’t hype kids into buying things” (attributed to John Roberts, an organizer of Woodstock, 1969)

“He was also known to be a hype artist by nature. He never just liked something. He loved it. And when he loved, everybody knew it.” (Arnold Shaw, 1974).

The proportions vary, but in both quotations the combination of creating a false impression and overstating the worth of a product or an idea is present.

“Hype” actually became less disreputable with this new meaning. Before 1970, it generally meant “junkie” or “needle” (as in “hypodermic”), or denoted a certain trick for swindling checkout clerks in underworld slang. Both of these meanings go back to the 1920’s, according to Lighter’s slang dictionary, so the word has had a distinct air of dishonesty, not to say sleaze, for a long time now. Both senses were pretty well gone by my boyhood and by now have been terminally supplanted. It seems unlikely that they are direct ancestors, anyway; “hype” presumably is short for “hyperbole,” unless someone has a better explanation.

I noted above that “hype” generally involves lightweight deception, or at least a tinge of dishonesty. To my ear, this seems especially true when it is used as a noun. Used as a verb, “hype” refers as readily to the efforts of professional ad men and flacks, kept more or less within ethical bounds, as to those of hucksters and mountebanks. Not that the verb never suggests lying, but it’s less inevitable. The past participle may also mean “excited and alert” (as in “psyched” or “pumped”): picture an athlete exclaiming, “We were hyped up!” after a close game. In that sense it may simply be short for “hyper,” although it means something a little different. (Mercifully, “hyper” has avoided the sense of “one who hypes.”)

What is the relation between “hype” and “buzz”? Sometimes they are treated as synonyms, but they aren’t. Hype, executed properly, creates buzz. Hyping isn’t merely exaggerating, innocently or otherwise; it’s about generating publicity. Get the town, or the blogosphere, buzzing about your product. If your hype doesn’t create buzz, you’re pretty hypeless.


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