I woke up this morning pondering the question: “What does it mean to be super?” Today is the day of the big game, the Super Bowl, which is really more than a big football game. It is a cultural ritual, a national holiday of sorts, a ceremony and celebration of all that is American: big, brash, bold and, well, super.
Superman was, after all, the invention of an American mind, as is super-sized food portions (MacDonalds), and supermodels (first used in 1942 in an article in the Chicago Tribune). I am currently traveling away from home, and got my hair cut last week at a chain called Supercuts. The name appealed to me, with it’s promise of a great haircut at a reasonable price. We have the trend toward “superfoods”: blueberries, salmon, kale, green tea, etc. that are supposedly packed with health benefits. In a world with which I am intimately familiar (I hold a U.S. Coast Guard Master license), pleasure boats for the wealthy have gone from yachts to megayachts to Superyachts. And the commercial ship industry years ago graduated from plain old tankers to supertankers.
Superman is not alone; in addition to his counterparts Superwoman, Superboy and Supergirl, there is a seemingly endless legion of Superheros and their boxoffice blockbusters, from Spiderman, Batman, Ironman, Thor and Captain America to The Incredible Hulk and many more, most of whom posses super-powers.
When I used to travel more frequently for business, I would often take the ubiquitous SuperShuttle, those blue vans with gold lettering that serve every major airport in the U.S. (and some overseas as well). I was once the editor-in-chief of a magazine called Superconductor Industry, a magazine that covered an aspect of low-temperature physics, showing that even normally staid physicists can’t resist attaching the word ”super” to something as a modifier.
Every four years we are subjected to the idea of “super-delegates” at our national presidential nominating conventions, and Super Tuesday when many of those delegates get chosen (of course one would expect politicians to be over the top with their superlatives, unlike physicists). Unfortunately super PACs are with us 365 days of the year.
Other sciences cannot resist the temptation to be super. Freud and psychology gave us the super-ego. Astronomy has supergiants, very large stars.
We have superglues and super-highways and and super-moms and superweeds and superbugs and superbikes and…well, you get the picture.
So back to my original question: “What does it mean to be super?” Why is it a word so ingrained in the American consciousness? Is it just a matter of a word that serves the American penchant for being bigger? America is a big country, with wide-open spaces. I was reminded of how different we are from Europe in that regard this past week, when I was working as manager of shoreside facilities for an Olympic class sailing regatta. The European boats were placed sideways on their trailers, very different from the American boats. Why? One sailor told me the width limit on European trailers is six feet, as opposed to the eight feet for U.S. trailers, because their roads are narrower.
There are several ways to use ”super." One can use it as an adjective, and adverb, a noun, or to form a combination word, using a hyphen. Interestingly, using super as an adjective does not have the over-the-top connotations that are usually associated with using it as a modifier. My dictionary defines the adjective usage as "very good or pleasant; excellent: Julie was a super girl."
I don't think most of us use it that way, however. I think most of us use super to mean that something is at the very, very far right of the bell curve, something extraordinary. It's an easy shorthand that most of us immediately understand when applied to physical things or events.
Personally, I disagree with my dictionary. Their example of using Julie was a super girl to mean simply "very good" sounds vaguely British to me. I can almost hear the British accent coming off the page. As Americans, we are an almost relentlessly positive people, constantly striving to be better, bigger, more super. No wonder we keep adding "super-" to words. The propensity for Americans to devour self-improvement books is something the Brits make fun of us for. We use super to mean "wham! boom! pow!" For us, super is the equivalent of about ten exclamation marks. And the rest of the planet by and large loves that way of seeing the world. All those superhero movies are huge blockbusters in the international market, as is the Super Bowl.
I like seeing the world as super. I like seeing people as super. I like finding the super part of every individual I meet. And yes, I'll be cheering on the teams in the Super Bowl. There is another trend in language, which is to add "-ness" onto words. That is a subject for another column. In the meantime, with all the emphasis these days on finding happiness, I propose another, equally important pursuit: finding superness. Bring it on!!!!!!!!!!!!!
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