The Vocabularist: Super, hyper, over or uber?

Superman Image copyright Reuters

When Google founder Larry Page praised projects which "other people think are crazy but we are super excited about." he was using a word which the English language has taken to its heart, writes Trevor Timpson.

From "super-dainty Kate" in the Taming of the Shrew to Superfast Broadband, from Sam Weller's "wery best extra-super behaviour" in The Pickwick Papers to superheroes, the Latin word meaning over or beyond has conferred appreciation or affection on a whole range of things for centuries.

Setting out the origin and connections of "super" is daunting - like opening an overstuffed cupboard and watching as scores of useful little words in most of the languages of Europe and northern India tumble out.

Briefly, in the common source of these languages was a word something like "up" which meant, well, up - or at least up to, and therefore "below".

That was the ancestor of words which include sub in Latin and hypo in Greek (the upsilon which we write as a y was like a French or Scottish "u").

And "uper" was "more than 'up'" - and so "above", and its descendants include "super" in Latin, "hyper" in Greek, German "über" and English "over". The s in the Latin words may come from "ex" once being added at the beginning.

Of super's cousin-words "hyper" has come off worst. Compare "Well done, that's super" with "Stop it, you're being hyper". The Greek form has got a bad name from its use in "hyperbole" ("hype") and "hyperactive".

But "über" has become popular in American humour in recent decades, and is now often used without the two dots as another way of saying "super".

Image caption Sarah Badel as "super-dainty Kate" and John Cleese in The Taming of the Shrew.

This owes little to Freud's "Über-ich" (Super-ego) or Nietzsche's "Übermensch" - though that was certainly the source of Shaw's title Man and Superman in 1903 and may have nudged Jerry Siegel towards the name of his superhero character in the 1930s.

Über just sounds familiar to English speakers because of "Deutschland über Alles".

It has had an extra boost from computer gaming, with its need to find words for higher and higher achievement levels. Super and hyper were simply not enough.

When a name was needed for a new approach to taxi booking "UberCab" was a snappy choice, later shortened to Uber.

Now we have predictions of "super-Uber" fleets of driverless taxis, and US politicians who spend a lot on taxis can be "Uber super users".

But to some, those combinations might seem a bit hyper.


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