Phrase that goes over the top suffers superannoying fate

Ideas

WORD IN THE HAND: OTT

Phrase that goes over the top suffers superannoying fate

A column to satisfy your inner grammar nerd

Journalist


Over the top, or in its abbreviated format OTT, is an idiom that has lost currency with today’s millennials. It still crops up here and there with reference to a particularly short skirt or lurid hat worn by a member of the supercelebrati, but by and large OTT has been put out to pasture.
Millennials may have discarded OTT but they have taken to “super” like a hedgehog to Velcro. Name almost any adjective and you’ll find super stuck firmly onto the front of it. It’s not enough to be gorgeous or clever or hungry or tired any more. You have to be supergorgeous, superclever, superhungry or supertired. It’s superannoying.
About a decade ago, things were different. Not everything was super, but almost everything was OTT. Over-embroidered wedding dresses, over-sequinned cushions, overly abstract paintings, excessively large portions of ice cream, outrageously expensive shoes, ridiculously long beards, hedgehogs wearing make-up … anything venturing slightly beyond the borders of restrained good taste was deemed over the top.
Perhaps OTT is no longer in vogue because the borders of taste have expanded so rapidly that almost nothing is seen as adventurous. You can walk down the street in a leotard made of raspberries, twirling a stuffed python in one hand and with a live kabeljou balanced on your head, and no one would bat an eyelid. It’s hard to go over the top when the top has receded into the cloud.
Speaking of millennials, I was fascinated to find this statement written in 1918 by a British war correspondent: “We mutually agreed to call it the First World War in order to prevent the millennium folk from forgetting that the history of the world was the history of war.”
So if you thought we over-34-year-olds of today are the first generation to roll our eyes at the all-knowing ignorance of youth, you were wrong. And if you thought, as I did, that World War 1 acquired its name in retrospect only after World War 2 began, you were also wrong. Don’t you feel superclever now?
On Sunday it will be 100 years since the peace was declared that brought an end to the four years of mass slaughter that we now call World War 1. Memorial services to mark the centenary are unlikely to be over the top, so perhaps restrained good taste is not completely dead.
Apart from the respect due to the 40 million soldiers (most of them well under 34) and civilians killed a century ago, there is another reason for not allowing commemorative events to go over the top. This is because the phrase itself was spawned in WW1.
On the battlefield then, to go “over the top” meant leaving the minimal safety of a reinforced trench and braving the barbed wire, bayonets and bullets that lay in wait above the trench and beyond the sandbags.
Going over the top almost inevitably meant death for those young soldiers. So it is a little disturbing that OTT subsequently migrated to the shallows of heels and handbags.
But that’s how things happen in language, and language is very often a reflection of society. We should not be allowed to forget the horrors of WW1, but the fact that a grim phrase has become much lighter, that there is still joy and frivolity in the world, is perhaps something that would please all those fallen millennials.

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