Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally


Posted by Neal on December 8, 2012

The white-glove test

It’s been more than four years since Doug and Adam got the game Hyper Crush Bros. Knockdown-Dragout for the GameCube. (The GameCube!) But they still play it, as well as the sequel game that came out for the Wii a couple of years later. For all the first-person shooters that Doug plays (which he calls FPSs), with realistic weapons like submachine guns (SMGs), he has said more than once that the best party videogame is this one. Adam agrees. And just tonight, they were down in the basement playing Hyper Crush on the GameCube, because of a glitch that Adam read about today.

The most formidable opponent in the game, the final boss at the end of some mode of play or another, is nothing but a giant hand that can pound you, smack you, drill you into the fighting platform, or just flick you away into the vast reaches of space. Adam found out about a glitch that would let you actually play as this Master Hand, not just face it as a boss.

I hadn’t remembered that Master Hand was a non-playable character, so I asked, “Oh, you couldn’t play as Master Hand before?”

“Oh, no,” Doug answered;

Think about it; he’d be overpowered.

With the meaning of overpowered that I’ve used most of my life, this sentence is completely contrary to what I know Master Hand. It means that playing as Master Hand, you’d be quickly and easily defeated. But with the meaning that Doug standardly uses when talking about characters in his FPSs that have too many weapons and abilities, it means that nothing could defeat you.

The ambiguity comes down to the ambiguity of the -ed suffix. Its the past participle suffix, of course, so for a verb like overpower, the -ed suffix gives us the overpowered that means (in the words of the OED) “Subdued or overcome by a superior force or influence; overwhelmed.”

But -ed can also attach to nouns, to give us adjectives that mean “having [NOUN],” as in a one-eyed, one-horned flying purple people eater. Attach it to the noun power, and you get powered with the meaning “having power”. Of course, power is also a verb, so you can get the homonym powered “having been supplied with power”, which means pretty much the same thing as noun-derived powered. But here’s where things get different. When you attach over to the noun-derived powered, you get Doug’s meaning of overpowered. As it turns out, this definition is in the OED, too: “Having a greater than usual or excessive degree of (mechanical) power.” They have attestations going back to 1971:

  • 1971 A. Diment Think Inc. iv. 56 Fast acceleration because Corvairs are overpowered if anything which is definitely the right way to be.
  • 1990 Good Housek. May 7/2 (advt.) And because it powers a more efficient vacuum cleaner, it doesn’t need to be overpowered.
  • 2000 J. Doyle Taken for Ride xxii. 440 The industry moved from four- to six-cylinder engines in the the overpowered Pontiac GTO and Dodge Charger muscle cars of the 1960s and 1970s.

The OED even agrees with my morphological analysis. Look at its etymology for my meaning of overpowered and for Doug’s:

  • [verb-derived] Etymology: < overpower v. + -ed suffix1.
  • [noun-derived] Etymology: < over- prefix + powered adj.

Or in the presentation style that I prefer, here is the latest in a list of English contronyms, joining cleave, sanction, and all the rest:

I'm defeated!
I'm invincible!

5 Responses to “Overpowered!”

  1. The Ridger said

    It seems to me there’d be an intonation difference in the 2 words. One would stress POW and the other OVER, with possibly even a slight break between over and powered. Does Doug pronounce them the same?

  2. Lauren said

    This is a common form in gaming circles, and as far as I’ve observed, it is never used by gamers to means “quickly and easily defeated”. In fact, just the other day I heard someone say:
    “We were overpowered.”
    Which meant their team was the far superior fighting force.

    Recently, I’ve observed this has been used so often that it’s received its own short form, “OP”, at least in the World of Warcraft community. It’s everywhere. “Mages are so OP,” “That last boss is OP,” “This sword is OP”. The short form retains only the “having a greater than usual or excessive degree of power” meaning.

    Very fascinating, I hadn’t really given much thought to this form before!

  3. Eugene said

    Ambiguities demonstrate how much work listeners and readers do so efficiently. Your discussion of overpowered reminds me of unlockable – an example from 101. In general we seem to prefer the right-branching meaning when it makes sense, I think. So the normal interpretation would be that the door cannot be locked. A funny one is unthinkable. See if you can unthink it.
    In addition to right-branching, another factor would be how frequent the stem is. The verb, overpower, is very familiar while the participial modifier, powered, is relatively unusual. We don’t hear much about powered cars and trucks, but we hear very often about one opponent overpowering another.
    In the case of overpowered, I’d be inclined to use a hyphen (over-powered) to mean ‘having too much power. The hyphen tells the reader that it’s left-branching (as opposed to left branching, which would have the same structure as left hanging, left wanting, etc.)

  4. Jo said

    Nice analysis. I found another attestation, so I thought I’d drop it on you. It can’t beat the OED’s time frame, but it does add an ordinary use without a hyphen, contra Eugene.

    It was a small cruiser with a low, streamlined profile, a white hull, and a cabin that probably held only one bunk on each side. He could tell by the deep register of the engine that it was overpowered, and part of him was waiting for it to do something to justify the power…
    —from Dead Aim by Thomas Perry (2002)

    • Eugene said

      Nice example. The context makes the intended meaning abundantly clear. Though I might still be inclined to use a hyphen, I agree that it isn’t an established convention, and most of the time it probably isn’t necessary.

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