Superman has been around for more than eighty years. The word super been a part of English much longer. It was borrowed into English from Latin, and in Old English we already find the word superhumerale to refer to a religious garment worn over the shoulders.
The earliest OED citation of super applied to people is from 1599 and refers to women and their “… super humane and angelicall natures.” This reference to metaphoric divinity is not quite superhuman, but already we begin to see the meaning of super extended to human qualities above the ordinary.
The expression super-man came into vogue in the late nineteenth century, with the sense of divinity replaced by ideas of destiny and evolution. The OED gives a citation from an 1894 article by Granville Stanley Hall, which referred to “the ‘cosmic, super-man’ of the future,” with its nod to Nietzsche’s übermensch. And George Bernard Shaw, of course, popularized the term further in his 1903 play “Man and Superman,” which dealt with marriage and evolution.
Around this time too, we begin to hear of superheroes and superheroines, albeit without invulnerability, X-ray vision, and the power of flight. In 1899, a report on the Dreyfus affair commented that “if Colonel Picquart is a hero, Mathieu Dreyfus [Alfred’s brother] is a super-hero,” and a 1910 Texas newspaper reported that Florence Nightingale’s “last days were passed quietly in the friendly seclusion that a respectful public allows only to its super-heroines.”
Superman, of course, came to be the name of the infant refugee from the dying world of Krypton. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster first used the name Superman in a 1933 fanzine piece the two published. They later sold the character to Detective Comics, where the son of Krypton appeared in Action Comics #1 in 1938. Superman quickly received his own title as well as a daily newspaper comic strip launched in 1939, a radio show in 1940, and a 15-part serial film released in 1948. As the word superhero shifted to refer to comic book characters with extraordinary powers, supervillain also shifted from meaning “extremely villainous” to a fictional villain with superhuman powers.
Super was evolving in other ways as well. The OED cites early entries for supermarkets in 1931 and 1933 in reference to large self-service chain stores selling food and other goods. By the 1950s, supermarket was being used to refer more broadly to enterprises with many products, and Life magazine could describe the “the gleaming TV supermarkets of Hollywood and New York.” Supermarkets later gave us superstores, reflecting an increase in scope, and the verb super-size. We find it in supertankers, superhighways, and superfoods, the last a bit of marketing puffery rather than a description of a food group with specific nutritional properties.
As for super flying solo, the word had long been an adjective, occurring even in the Pickwick Papers, where Samuel Weller tells Mr. Smangles, “I’ll be upon the wery best extra-super behaviour!” Super became used as an adverb from about the 1970s, and since the 1990s, the adverbial use has taken off. It’s easy to hear examples like “I was super into them,” “I’m super tired,” “Hold it super tight,” “I super hate to drive in the city,” or “I super like linguistics.” Some people don’t like this adverbial use of super—I turned up my nose at first—but now I smile inside when I hear someone say they are super excited.
Super has evolved from a Latin prefix designating “over” to an adjective and now an adverb. It has designated divinity, exceptionality, superiority, extra-human powers, greater than normal size, and serves as an all-purpose positive expression, synonymous with great and really and very.
You might say it’s super.