Last Thursday at Thanksgiving dinner, a few of my cousins and I spent a solid 30 minutes trying to explain the evolution of the meaning of the word “extra” to one of our aunts. Traditionally, the word just means “more than is due, usual or necessary.” But recently, we — meaning mostly young people — have adopted it to describe something (or someone) that is over-the-top, excessive and usually kind of annoying. Uses of the word can be benign; the other day I was shopping with a friend, and she asked me if the skirt she was trying on was “too extra to wear to class.”
But other times, the word, and the sentiment behind it, is used to criticize effort and sincerity, like the girl who raises her hand “too often” in class or the guy who posts “too openly” about his life on Facebook. While we tried to explain this to our aunt, she kept getting caught up on what she perceived to be the neutral nature of the word. “Doesn’t extra just mean more?” Well, yes and no.
“It means more,” my cousin chimed in, “but more often it means too much.”
Etymology of that specific word aside, it’s interesting that we young people have assembled an arsenal of words and phrases — with almost uniformly negative connotations — to describe the same behavior: loud deviations from the norm.
If you’re overdressed for a function, you’re being extra. If you do more work for a class than you absolutely need to, you’re “doing the most.” If you’re really loud in a group of people, you’re “a lot.”
These are all pretty harmless phrases on their own, but in aggregate they show that somewhere along the line we decided that it’s cool to be calm, removed and chill. This isn’t necessarily anything new, and I don’t think it poses a great threat to society, but it is something that can be hard to navigate, especially in spaces like Cornell.
There’s a lot of pressure here not only to succeed, but to be exceptional and eventually do something great. And I think that’s pretty standard at Cornell, at other colleges, and in all kinds of spaces. I recently read through student newspapers from Columbia, Ithaca College, Harvard and others, and was able to find at least one column in each paper that described an “intense pressure” to succeed.
But when the expectation of success is coupled with a culture that punishes and pokes fun at effort, we’re nudged into a catch-22 where we can either be disingenuous about how hard we try, or be made to feel like our effort is embarrassing. I can’t count the amount of times that I’ve qualified a subpar column by reminding people that I wrote it the morning it was due, or acted like I studied less for a test than I actually did. A lot of people here are naturally quite smart, but nobody intuitively knows organic chemistry or Roman history. We have to put in effort to learn things, to do well and to eventually satisfy whatever goals we’re setting for ourselves. Still, in the binary we set between smart-person and try-hard, there is an unspoken pressure to make it look easy, to not be “extra.”
We should do our best to ignore this pressure. The actual consequences of being labeled a try-hard are practically non-existent, but the consequences of muting or changing pieces of your personality can be huge. The nonchalant, withdrawn persona that’s been deemed cool has a pretty short shelf-life.
Try, fail, be extra, look stupid. It’s easy to sit back and be critical of others. What isn’t easy is participating. Participate anyways.
Jacqueline Groskaufmanis is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. The Dissent appears alternating Mondays this semester. Jacqueline can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.