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The "Surge" Surge Must Be Stopped

Matt Cardy/Getty

In a blog post Sunday, the Department of Health and Human Services acknowledged “difficulties” since the launch of—the national healthcare-exchange site for Americans not living in states that set up their own exchanges—and promised a “tech surge” to solve the site’s problems. How deadly serious and uncompromisingly aggressive that sounds! Until, that is, the blog post explains further: “[O]ur team has called in additional help to solve some of the more complex technical issues we are encountering. Our team is bringing in some of the best and brightest from both inside and outside government to scrub in with the team and help improve” So you’re just hiring a bunch of people to bail you out of this mess? OK, got it.

The “____ surge” construction has been on the rise in recent years, the result—I suspect, but can’t conclusively prove—of the 2007 troop surge in Iraq. Since then, we’ve had a proposal for a border surge to fight illegal immigration, a police surge in Trenton, a Santorum surge (tee-hee), and even, according to David Brooks, an Orthodox surge. And that's just off the top of my head.

The noun itself originated in the late 15th century, when it referred to fountains, streams, and the like. By the 1510s its usage had already expanded to refer to emotions and spawned a verb form, by which point it was a mere hop from its current definition: “a sudden powerful forward or upward movement” (n.) and “move suddenly and powerfully forward or upward” (v.). Its frequency of usage, however, didn’t really surge until last century, according to Google Books’ Ngram Viewer:

We have long been used to the ocean surging, as well as stocks, crowds, electricity, illness, and more recently TV ratings, public opinion, and crime. These surges are not generally planned or even very predictable; they are the result of myriad forces that are often beyond our control (or at least difficult to control). Used as such, “surge” has proven popular enough with reporters and editors. A Google search of The New York Times’ site in 2006, the year before the Iraq surge, returns 3.15 million pages. Did we really need to find more uses for this overused word? 

Apparently so: The same search for this year returns 4.4 million pages. I can’t say how many of those are examples of this trendy definition of “surge,” to mean “throw tons of people and money at something that’s broken.” But the more that our government, politicians, and columnists use it, the more our media will spread it. It’s enough to make the contents of my stomach surge onto my laptop.