Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

2008: The Year of "Oversharing"

Another week, another Word of the Year selection! The latest comes from the editors at Webster's New World Dictionary, who have selected the useful verb overshare. They define it as: "to divulge excessive personal information, as in a blog or broadcast interview, prompting reactions ranging from alarmed discomfort to approval." It's certainly a word that captures the zeitgeist of the Age of Too Much Information.

Webster's New World chose overshare as their Word of the Year over four rather more idiosyncratic choices:

  • leisure sickness (noun): a purported syndrome, not universally recognized by psychologists, by which some people (typically characterized as workaholics) are more likely to report feeling ill during weekends and vacations than when working.
  • cyberchondriac (noun): a hypochondriac who imagines that he or she has a particular disease based on medical information gleaned from the Internet.
  • selective ignorance (noun): the practice of selectively ignoring distracting, irrelevant, or otherwise unnecessary information received, such as e-mails, news reports, etc.
  • youthanasia (noun): the controversial practice of performing a battery of age-defying medical procedures to end lifeless skin and wrinkles

WOTY-watchers weren't too surprised that Webster's New World's finalists were so peculiar. In past years, the dictionary editors have selected such oddball choices as grass station (a theoretical fill-up spot for cars run on vegetable-based fuels) and infosnacking (time spent on the computer at work doing things that aren't work-related). So it's a relief that this year they selected a word that people are actually, you know, using.

Oversharing got a big boost this year from a New York Times Magazine cover story in May by Emily Gould, an oversharer par excellence. Gould, a former editor of Gawker.com, spilled the goods on her ongoing professional and romantic dramas on her own blog, and then wrote about the perils of oversharing. "Of course, some people have always been more naturally inclined toward oversharing than others," Gould wrote. "Technology just enables us to overshare on a different scale."

Though social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace have brought oversharing to new heights (or lows), the term, like the practice, has been around for a while. The verb overshare has been used online since at least 1997, but the noun probably came first. As early as May 1996, a participant in the Usenet newsgroup "houston.personals" commented that her brother-in-law calls her "the queen of overshare." By 1998, Usenetters were prefacing potentially excessive revelations with the warning, "Overshare alert!" And the word hit the pop-cultural mainstream in 2000, when a character in the cheerleader movie "Bring It On," issued the protest, "That was an overshare!"

Similar to the overshare objection in "Bring It On" is the abbreviation TMI, which of course stands for "too much information" — another expression that came of age in the late '90s. As a youthful source told the Macon Telegraph & News on May 12, 1997, "You say [TMI] whenever someone informs you of something extremely personal or gross." Some have guessed that TMI originated as American military slang, but nowadays it is more likely to be found in text messages, chatrooms, or any forum where oversharing is going on.

Overshare has proven itself to be more flexible than TMI, since the verbal noun oversharing can cover a wide array of revelatory activities in the digital age. And as Webster's New World editor-in-chief Mike Agnes explains, oversharing elicits a diverse range of reactions: "Some people use it disparagingly; they don't like oversharing," Agnes said. "Others think oversharing is good and that one must give full disclosure of one's inner life. Sometimes there is a generational shift in the way people look at this practice and therefore view the word."

What do you think of the practice and the word? Feel free to overshare in the comments!

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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