CHICAGO – The smart money’s on the buff guy in the red-and-blue undies.

Philologists might snicker, etymologists may scoff, but the chief reason that the adjective “super” has invaded our culture like one of those cackling, diabolically evil geniuses from whom Superman has always protected us could be…

Yup. The Man of Steel himself.

Sure, he was created in 1933, almost half a century before the Democrats cooked up the term “superdelegate.” But the reason they hung that adjective – as opposed to making it “mega-delegate” or “monster delegate” or “doozy-of-a-delegate” – on the rarefied category of convention vote-casters might be traced right back to that illegal immigrant from the planet Krypton.

“‘Super’ is a fun word, and everyone knows what it means,” says Albert Goldbarth, a poet, essayist and humanities professor at Wichita State University. “When we add it to a sentence, there’s an immediacy. A clarity.”

Actually, we lied about Goldbarth: He’s more than just an award-winning author of 30 books. More than an esteemed professor who holds an endowed chair at a fine university.

He’s a Superman nut. And to figure out how “super” became today’s default modifier whenever we want to suggest BIG and WOW and LOOKEE HERE, to discover how phrases such as “Super Tuesday” and “Super Bowl” made themselves right at home in our daily vocabularies, we should, Goldbarth suggests, sit down for a good, long think in the Fortress of Solitude. (If you don’t know what that is, you shame yourself.)

We should study cultural history. We should learn that when the first comic book featuring Superman rolled off the presses in June 1938, dreamed up by a couple of guys in Cleveland named Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, and quickly found its way into the sweaty mitts of urchins everywhere, the adjective “super” was not nearly as ubiquitous as it is these days.

This was long before supermodels. Long before you could supersize your fries or annoy your little brother with a Super Soaker. The designation “Superman” was largely a lofty, intellectual one, bandied about by the likes of playwright George Bernard Shaw and the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

“(Superman’s) first appearance was extraordinary,” Goldbarth declares. “Even more than ‘Star Wars,’ it redefined the terms of popular entertainment.” A mass-marketed fictional character, one who appealed to a broad market and straddled a variety of socioeconomic groups, was revolutionary, he believes. “It changed the language. We have the word ‘superhero’ only because there was a Superman.”

But where did we get the word “super” in the first place?

Don Firke, head of the Latin School of Chicago, who has taught Latin for more than three decades, has the answer: “‘Super’ is a Latin adverb or preposition meaning ‘over and above.’ Later the Romans spun it into a related adverb, ‘superus.’ It came to mean ‘the ones who live above us.’ So the ‘superi’ were the gods,” Firke says.

Many modern words come from that, Firke notes: superior, supreme, superlative, supercilious.

But why, when people want to elevate an entity to stratospheric heights, when they want to suggest that it’s bigger and better and stronger and faster than anything that’s come before it, do they reach for the adjective “super” – instead of, say, “big” or “fantastic” or “phenomenal” or “ginormous”?

Perhaps because Superman, along with making the world safe from Lex Luthor and assorted other nefarious scoundrels, made the world safe for the word “super.” A lot of people like Superman. Superman is a good guy.

“The word ‘mega’ sounds a little scarier,” Firke notes. “Maybe it’s because of ‘megaton bombs.’ It’s a hard word to like.”

So “super” has gotten the nod, and now it’s used everywhere, from Democratic operatives to the pet utterance of film characters (Juno in “Juno” is fond of an aurally ironic So-o-o-o-o-per.) Super is super popular.

And that’s the problem, Goldbarth complains. “Like so many words these days, it’s used loosely. It’s worn out its welcome.”

Firke, for his part, is willing to credit Superman for turning the word into the world’s favorite superlative, but he does so grudgingly.

“Actually,” Firke says, “I’m a Spider-Man guy at heart.”

P.S. If the Fortress of Solitude still doesn’t ring a bell, it’s Superman’s secret hide-out.


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