Too big to fail, too drunk to care, too good to be true. When something is in excess, English commonly uses the adverb “too” to express such states of affairs. Japanese can do similar things with the verb sugiru(過ぎる, to pass by, exceed), which has basically the same meaning as “too,” but a far larger range of application.
Resemblance with “too” is still close when sugiru is attached to adjectives. It works with both i– and na-adjectives, as in muzukashi-sugiru (難しすぎる, too difficult) and kantan-sugiru (簡単すぎる, too simple). It also attaches to negated forms, which gives usmuzukashikunasa-sugiru (難しくなさすぎる, “too un-difficult,” or “much easier than should be”) and kantan janasa-sugiru (簡単じゃなさすぎる, “too non-simple” — that is, “far more difficult than expected”). In casual Japanese, sugiru is frequently shortened to the nominal form sugi, as in hayasugi (早すぎ, too early) or ososugi (遅すぎ, too late).
Unlike the English “too,” sugiru also attaches to verbs. Some acts that are commonly done in excess are tabe-sugiru (食べすぎる, eat too much), nomi-sugiru (飲みすぎる, drink too much) and ii-sugiru (言いすぎる, say too much). Note that when an adverb is added, sugiru still attaches to the verb, not the adverb. Thus “run too fast” is not haya-sugite hashiru or something, but hayaku hashiri-sugiru (速く走りすぎる). Negated verbs are also possible, as in doryoku shinasa-sugi (努力しなさすぎ, give too little effort) or ki ni shinasa-sugi (気にしなさすぎ, take too little to heart).
Things get really amazing when sugiru docks with a noun. Here we completely part ways with English “too,” where a person just cannot be a “too-beauty” or a “too-gentleman.” In Japanese, constructions likebijin-sugiru (美人すぎる, a breathtakingly beautiful woman) andshinshi-sugiru (紳士すぎる, a most gentlemanly gentleman) are possible and, even though not part of textbook grammar, are in fact quite common.
What makes this grammatical extension of sugiru so interesting is that it indicates changes on the level of meaning, too: Rather than find a hair in the daily soup of mediocrity, sugiru is now frequently used to evaluate something as just totally over-the-top positive.
An example that was recently quoted in an article by a Japanese colleague is the phrase sekai ichi tōmei-sugiru umi (世界一透明すぎる海). It was contained in the title of an NHK documentary and literally translates as “the world’s most too-transparent sea.” Now imagine: Ifsugiru was understood in its traditional way here, this would mean that (a) there is a group of seas around the world that some international expert commission has identified as being too transparent (perhaps in order to dirty them down?), and (b) the aforementioned sea is the one most too-transparent of them all. Though logically possible, that doesn’t make much sense. But when sugiru is understood as a simple expressivity-raising device, the intended meaning of the phrase becomes perfectly clear: This sea is so transparent that it out-transparents any other places.
This also helps to explain the occurrence of other terms with an utterly positive meaning that can be modified by sugiru. Examples includeuma-sugiru (旨すぎる, just too yummy), kawai-sugiru (可愛すぎる, just too cute), and raburabu-sugiru (ラブラブすぎる, “totally and completely ever-after in love”).
One likely side-effect of the new usage of sugiru is a weakening of its excessive function. Fortunately, a solution to this problem is already under way: the duplicated form sugi-sugiru. For example, there is this woman who complains about her long-working husband with a web entry titled Otto no shigoto ga isogashi-sugi-sugiru to katei hōkai (夫の仕事が忙しすぎすぎると家庭崩壊, “Family breakup because of too too-busy husband”). Others comment on a melee between customers at a fast food chain, which they refer to as Makudonarudo no kyakusō ga yaba-sugi-sugiru ken (マクドナルドの客層がヤバすぎすぎる件, “The too damn dangerous McDonald’s customers incident”).
For really excessive excess, just add another sugi. Like this fan blogger, who appeared to be so struck by the beauty of his idol that he likened her to a kawai-sugi-sugi-sugiru tenshi (可愛すぎすぎすぎる天使, too too too cute angel). And that’s not yet the end of the line, as even the four-times chain sugi-sugi-sugi-sugiru still yields several hundred hits on the Web. In fact, the longest construction I could find was a succession of no less than 11 sugis.
But no worries, such chains of excess are rather unlikely to become part of the standard language. That would be just a little too too much, wouldn’t it?