Americans have two “super” events coming up on the national agenda: Super Bowl XLII on Sunday between the Giants and Patriots, followed two days later by Super Tuesday, when about half the country will vote in Democratic and Republican presidential primaries. Fox, the network that is broadcasting the Super Bowl, is even creating a Super mashup before the game begins, with two hours of coverage on Sunday morning mixing politics and football. It’s all quite super, some might say super-duper. So how did we get to this level of superheated superabundancy?
English super-words all owe their roots to the Latin adverb and preposition super, meaning ‘above, on top of, beyond.’ As a prefix, super- can attach to verbs like superimpose, adjectives like supernatural, and nouns like superstructure. In the twentieth century, super- got supercharged by one of the most enduring figures of modern popular culture: Superman. The term superman to refer to an idealized superior being goes back to Nietzsche’s übermensch, which has also been translated into English as overman or beyond-man. George Bernard Shaw helped popularize the super-version with his 1903 play Man and Superman, and the term would eventually be picked up by the creators of the Superman comic strip, first appearing in 1938. By the 1950s, thanks to radio, film, and television serials, the image of Superman had become firmly entrenched in the public consciousness — and by extension a variety of other superheroes with superpowers.
In the wake of Superman, a person or thing prefixed with super- is generally understood to be surpassing all others, the best or most imposing of its class. In the latter half of the twentieth century the lexicon was flooded with all manner of superlatives, from superhighways to supercomputers, from superstores to supermoms. This proliferation was helped along by the earlier development of super as a free-standing adjective, meaning ‘excellent, first-rate,’ sometimes reduplicated as super-duper.
So when the National Football League merged with the American Football League in 1966 and a name for the new championship game was required, it’s not surprising that the game was called Super. It was called a Bowl in the tradition of college football’s post-season “bowl games,” which ultimately can be traced back to the first such game played at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. One story has it that AFL founder Lamar Hunt came up with Super Bowl after watching his children play with a new-fangled bouncy toy known as the SuperBall. Hunt might have initially meant it as a joke, but needless to say another term never came along to supersede it.
The story of Super Tuesday is a bit more complicated. The earliest known combination of presidential primary elections to be called Super Tuesday took place back on June 8, 1976, when California, New Jersey, and Ohio all held their primaries. That primary day paled in comparison to the Super Tuesday of 1988 and afterwards, when a large bloc of Southern states dominated on a Tuesday in early March. When states started jockeying to position themselves as early as possible in the 2008 primary process, a new Super Tuesday was created on February 5. Two of the original Super Tuesday states from 1976, California and New Jersey, have had their revenge now that they have moved up their old increasingly irrelevant June primary dates.
When it became clear that 22 states and American Samoa would all vote on one day, pundits quickly searched for an expression to out-super Super Tuesday. CNN political analyst Bill Schneider and others suggested the reduplicated Super-Duper Tuesday, but as Grant Barrett’s Double-Tongued Dictionary notes, this term was actually suggested by several observers to describe the Super Tuesday of 1988, which seemed super-duper at the time. As Erin McKean told the New York Times recently, the reduplication of Super-Duper Tuesday is a way of intensifying something that is already pretty intense, though the result “has an aura of jokiness.”
Other suggested names for February 5 are Tsunami Tuesday, Mega-Tuesday, and Giga-Tuesday. The National Journal’s Charlie Cook has called it the Powerball Primary (after the big multistate lottery drawing), while Donna Brazile and Michael Barone have both suggested the Mardi Gras Primary since that’s the day on which Mardi Gras falls this year. It has also somewhat unimaginatively (and inaccurately) been referred to by some as National Primary Day. Among this batch Tsunami Tuesday has proven to be relatively successful among the punditry since it first began circulating in March of last year, despite potentially unpleasant connotations of the 2004 Asian tsunami.
But none of these amplified epithets have managed to displace good old Super Tuesday. A Google News search currently finds nearly 20,000 articles referencing Super Tuesday in the past month, compared to less than 1,000 for Super-Duper Tuesday and less than 500 for Tsunami Tuesday. Sometimes super says it all.
Ben Zimmer is an editor at Oxford University Press and a true word junkie. Once a week he surfaces from his dictionaries to write this column. Check out his “words of the week” on our main page (center column) or by clicking here