Sometimes when I ask my stertorous husband in his armchair whether he is asleep, he replies with a start: ‘Just thinking.’ If so, he seems recently to have been overthinking.
Overthinking is a pretty annoying word, often used by people not noted as great thinkers. Taylor Swift, the belle of West Reading, contrasts it with honest gut feeling. ‘Before this year I probably would’ve overthought when to release this music,’ she said when suddenly bringing out a new album to coincide with one due from Kanye West. ‘My gut is telling me that if you make something you love, you should just put it out into the world.’ That is not how I regard a cup of coffee, but people differ.
In newspapers, overthinking is often used by sportsmen fearing the loss of spontaneity. But for the past two decades overthinking has been a label for what we call worrying and psychologists call anxiety. It may be seen as rumination, obsessive thoughts, catastrophisation. There is plentiful advice online offering ‘six tips to stop overthinking’ or ‘nine strategies for overcoming overthinking’. It was with some surprise, then, that I discovered overthink to be an Old English word, used before 900 ad by Werferth, Bishop of Worcester. King Alfred asked him to translate the Dialogues of Gregory the Great, perhaps assisted by a churchman memorably named Werwulf. In the days of Werferth and Werwulf, overthink meant ‘think things over’, just as we use oversight for ‘looking things over’ as well as ‘overlooking things’. Overthink only came to mean ‘think too much about’ in the 17th century. George Wither used it in a poem in 1628: ‘So long the solitary nights did last, / That I had leisure my accounts to cast; / And think upon, and over-think those things, / Which darknesse, lonelinesse, and sorrow brings.’
Wither had a gift for strange titles for his many volumes, such as Amygdala Britannica (1647) and Paralellogrammaton (1662). John Aubrey tells the story of John Denham sparing Wither’s life so that there would remain at least one poet worse than he. Pope put Wither in the Dunciad, misspelling him as Withers. No matter. Wither has the last laugh. His useful resurrection of over-think appeals to many innocent of over-reading.