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Whatever became of `overkill'? The word, that is

SOMEONE pronounced the word ``overkill'' the other day. It was applied to an advertisement retouching a self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci so that the great man wore a three-piece pin-stripe suit. ``If da Vinci were a business banker,'' the big print read, ``he'd work for . . . .'' The name of a bank followed. ``That's too much,'' our friend sputtered. ``That's . . . overkill.''

Then he practically blushed, as if he had said something quaint.

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A few short years ago, ``overkill'' was a much-used word.

It perished, of course, from overkill.

Too bad, because overkill keeps getting worse, only now we have no word for it.

Since overkill was abandoned as a hopeless clich'e, the Strategic Defense Initiative (``star wars'') came into being, along with other military systems, actual and conceived, in the presence of which strong adjectives like ``excessive'' simply pale and fade away.

Overkill, where are you now that we really need you?

The term first entered our vocabulary when nuclear weapons entered our lives. Overkill will observe its 40th birthday this August.

How understated Hiroshima appears, compared with the explosions that would detonate World War III! Yet we have no new gasp -- no desperately stammering word like ``superoverkill'' -- with which to respond to this new immensity.

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Perhaps we would not require another megaword if the enormous fact of overkill so sobered our thoughts and feelings that it became the unspoken presence in all the risks we chose to take as a nation -- as a race.

Indeed, when the most run-of-the-mill weapons of 1985 qualify as overkill, we might hope that a compensatory underkill, as it were, would characterize the rhetoric of international negotiations. Not so, as we well know.

Opposing powers, with fresh arsenals of overkill to back up their old overkill, quarrel as impetuously as schoolboys with snowballs.

The fingers resting on the most powerful of push buttons have been known to drum to the street-fighter's rhythm of macho challenges, like ``Say `uncle'!'' and ``Make my day!''

Rather than becoming more aware of -- more awed by -- overkill, we appear to have developed a tolerance for it, adjusting to off-the-scale destruction as we adjust to the speed of a jet or any other technological ingenuity. Overkill has become the norm.

Since 1945, a lot more than our bombs have become ``mega.'' Sometimes it seems as if the whole American culture has kept pace with our escalating weapons. A statistical item in Harper's magazine notes that, by the age of 16, the average American child has witnessed 18,000 murders on television. Here is overkill in the living room -- a body count piling up with frightening casualness in the designated peaceful haven of the family.

Overkill shows up as more than body count too. It sets the tone for everyday life, establishing a kind of noise level at which dialogue and argument are carried on. If, in an age of reason, human discourse is chamber music, rich in nuances, fine shadings, and nice little balances, in the age of overkill, persuasion is conducted at the decibel level of hard rock.

One can hardly talk without hyperventilating. One cannot listen without the ears ringing.

A sad consequence is that even the most deserving causes are not able to obtain an audience without raising their appeals to a simplistic shout. Whether the idealistic purpose is to collect food for Africa or sponsor legislation against child abuse, activists seem compelled to reduce everything to a slogan -- preferably delivered by a celebrity -- in order to enlist the support of the rest of us.

Overkill, as a rhetorical style, is as indiscriminate as overkill weaponry. It aims for the masses, playing upon the rawest emotions, recklessly. It does not seek to explain, it seeks to instigate.

And yet the paradox is, the rhetoric of overkill screams about everything but overkill itself. We had to be reminded again this month of that chapter of horrendous overkill known as the Holocaust.

We are in danger of responding to history like patrons in a theater who can sleep through everything except the cry of ``Fire!'' -- and some of us have learned to yawn through that.

For the sake of common sense, if not sanity, any survivors from the last age of reason should make it their priority to reinstate overkill -- or a workable synonym for it -- in our vocabulary. What its absence suggests is that the rest of us have become so numbed by 40 years of overkill that we no longer know the name for it. A Wednesday and Friday column

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