"IS THE phantom menace of hype overshadowing the art of cinema?" was the two-line, eight-column headline in the Independent, prompting a question of my own. Are headlines getting longer? This one rivalled the Times's headlines back in William Rees-Mogg's day, which sometimes crammed in so much information that there was no need to read the story below. However, the Independent was asking a question, so it was worthwhile looking for the answer. The film The Phantom Menace, said the authors of this piece, opened amid predictions that it would gross record profits, "because of the hype, media manipulation and genuine excitement that surround it".

There seem to be two kinds of hype, and both started as American slang. One of them, dating from the 1920s, comes from hypodermic. It can be a needle, or an injection, or the addict who injects himself, thus getting himself thoroughly overstimulated, or hyped up. The other hype means short- changing someone, or, more generally, "a confidence trick, a racket, a swindle, a publicity stunt", according to the Oxford English Dictionary, which says that its origin is unknown. Some slang dictionaries say the "publicity stunt" meaning comes from hypodermic; some suggest that it's short for "high pressure", while others have no hesitation in tracing it back to hyperbole. Nik Cohn, in his 1969 history of pop, was quite certain about it. "In theory it is short for hyperbole," he wrote. "In practice, though, it means to promote by hustle, pressure, even honest effort if necessary."

Meanwhile Wentworth and Flexner's Dictionary of American Slang, admittedly a not-too-reliable source, defines hype as "artificial, phony, as produced by a hypodermic injection of stimulant" and then goes on to quote the columnist Billy Rose, who was writing in 1950 about a film that had "no fireworks, no fake suspense, no hyped-up glamour". But Robert L Chapman's New Dictionary of American Slang tells me that hyped-up comes from the prefix hyper meaning "over and above" as in "hypersensitive", though hype meaning "publicity stunt" is "probably influenced by hypo = needle".

The mind reels. There are now three possibilities: that the hype we read about in the Independent refers to needles; that it is about overstatement, or that it's from an obscure word meaning cheat. I think I could do without this third one, which the OED lumps in with the second. Joseph Wright's Dialect Dictionary offers "to hipe" (sometimes spelt with a "y") as a North Country word meaning "to assume appearances", and hiper as Yorkshire for "hypocrite", which might just have something to do with it.

In the end we all more or less agree about what the Independent means by the word (fooling people into thinking something's better than it is), but it's odd that the two sorts of derivation most commonly proposed should be based on two Greek prefixes whose meanings directly contradict each other - one being "above" and the other "below": someone with hyperthermia is overheated while someone else with hypothermia may die of too much cold. Since the pronunciation of these two words is almost identical, one can imagine some desperate misunderstandings in the casualty ward.

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