Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
From Superman to the Super Bowl to your neighborhood supermarket, modern English speakers are getting a lot of use out of super. But this is really nothing new: English has long included dozens of super words — though some aren’t as obvious as others — and they all trace back to a single source. (A supersource, if you will.)
The Latin word super means “over, above” as either a preposition or an adverb. That super made it into from ancient Rome to Modern English practically unchanged — at least in its spelling. It appears in a lot of common words, though their literal derivations might surprise you. Here are just a few:
- Supercilious: Not exactly a commonly used word, but recognizable to most. It derives from supercilium, the Latin word for “eyebrow” (super “over” + cilium “eyelid”). A person who is supercilious acts as though they are superior to others. One common way people have displayed this attitude is by responding to others with a simple raised eyebrow as a sign of disdain. (Consider how Star Trek’s Vulcans in general react to the illogical ideas of Earthlings.) It’s that age-old act of raising an eyebrow that ultimately gave us this word.
- Superfluous: From fluere “to flow,” superfluous literally translates to “overflowing.” Superfluous things are those that are unnecessary, like the water that overflows from a cup that is already full.
- Superior: A word I used in the description of supercilious, superior comes from superiorum, a comparative derived from super that means “in a higher position or rank.”
- Supernatural: Things that are “above or beyond” nature (originally associated only with religion) are supernatural.
- Supersede: From the Latin sedere “to sit,” supersede literally means “to sit on top of.”
- Superstition: The Latin stitio comes from stare “to stand.” The Latin superstitionem indicated “soothsaying” or “excessive fear of the gods.” Though etymologists have not settled on one theory of the word’s evolution in Latin, one theory is based on the idea of the belief that the gods are “standing over us” to make sure we follow their (largely unwritten) rules.
In the 20th century, the super- prefix began to take on the new sense of “very much” or “to a larger degree,” leading to modern words like superhighway, supermarket, and superspreader.
A quick look in the dictionary will reveal how we’ve made prolific use of the super- prefix, but that’s not the only way that Latin source has found its way into our language. Sometimes, super- words are filtered through other languages before they reach English. In Italian, for example, a feminine form of super, supra, became sopra, which is where we get the word soprano for the highest voice in the choir.
But because of geopolitics, English got a large number of words through French. In some Old French words, super- became sor- or sur- at the beginning of words that were later adopted into English. Some examples:
- Surcharge: If you’re paying a surcharge, you’re literally being “overcharged.”
- Surname: A surname is that overarching name that applies to everyone in the family.
- Surplus: This came through Old French from the Medieval Latin superplus, combining roots that mean “over” and “more.”
- Surprise: From sur- + prendre “to take,” in the late 14th century it meant “an unexpected attack.”
It would be corny of me to write that all these words that stem from the Latin super show just how super English can be, so I won’t. But we have certainly put this prefix and its etymological siblings to work for us, and we continue to do so in new coinages from English speakers from all corners of the planet.
Featured image: Sergey Nivens / Shutterstock
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