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> Too Much Information

Too Much Information

A few years back, I had this great idea: there ought to be a word that means “stop, that's enough, I don't need to know any more”. Then, for example, if you asked someone a question hoping to get a yes or no answer and ve started going into great detail, you could just say the word and get ver to stop without being rude about it.

When I went and told everyone about my great idea, I soon found out that there already was a word, or rather a phrase: “too much information”, or “TMI”. That was new to me then, but since then I've seen it all over the place, so I imagine it was just then becoming popular … either that, or I just hadn't paid attention until I was already thinking about it, in one of those observational bias effects. I wonder where it came from?

Since then, I've gradually been accepting “TMI” into my vocabulary, but I'm still not completely happy with it. For one thing, I really wish it were a regular word instead of an acronym (initialism). I don't mind talking about DNA or FTP or whatever, but to have an acronym for a word that's mainly used in speech, and mainly all by itself, well, it just seems too awkward. OK?

For another thing, “TMI” doesn't really mean what I want it to mean. The literal meaning is fine, but in practice it mostly seems to be used after the fact to say that some piece of information was gross and unnecessary, whereas I want to use it before the fact to say that some piece of information is tedious and unnecessary. Actually, the trouble isn't that I want to use it, and can't; it's that I do use it, but with the wrong meaning. That's bound to lead to confusion sooner or later, if not for me then for the friends and family I've infected.

By the way, I still find it strange that there wasn't already an English word with exactly the meaning I was looking for. Negotiating what level of detail to use is a pretty basic part of communication, after all, not something intrinsically modern like laptops or microwaves. Did people five hundred years ago have so little information that they were always happy to hear more? Did they have that much free time? Or were they politer, or more patient? I just don't get it. My best guess, which still isn't very good, is that language back then was less compact and efficient, so that taking the time to form a complete sentence like “thank you, good sir, that's all I need to know” was relatively less of a burden than it is now.

Now, here's the best part, which I just discovered recently. In addition to the kind of situation I've been talking about so far, where one is made to receive too much information, there's a second kind that I think has gone unreported, where the flow of information is reversed and one is made to send too much information. For example, if I'm walking out the door to run some errands and someone asks me where I'm going, I usually don't want to talk about it. The errands themselves are already tedious enough; having to stop and spend time explaining in complete sentences what the errands are is just adding insult to injury.

So, again, there ought to be a word … in this case, a word that means “it's tedious, who cares”. I have two ideas about that. One, we could just reuse “TMI”; there's nothing in the literal meaning that says which way the extra information has to flow. Or, two, we could get rid of “TMI” entirely and invent some nice pair of words to replace it, maybe something with Latin roots that uses the prefixes “in-” and “ex-”. I'll let you know if I think of anything good.

Here's one other thing I noticed. At present, when I get stuck explaining something tedious, I have a strong urge to do it in singsong. That makes some sense, because it's quick, but I think there's more to it than that. Talking in singsong is like saying “la la la”, which means, or is short for, the set phrase “la la la, I'm not listening”, which in turn is not too far removed in meaning from “TMI”! In other words, when sending too much information, “la la la” is a natural response (at least for me); and when receiving too much information, it's an established phrase with the correct meaning (and probably also a natural response). So, maybe I should be advocating “la la la” instead of “TMI”? It's rude, sure, but maybe over time that would wear off.

I'd also like to point out that “la la la” just has to be related to “blah blah blah”. There are probably similar words in every language.


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@ April (2009)