Q&A: Super excited?

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week we are super excited about Dean's super duper Q&A!

Q: Am I imagining things or have people been using “super” as an adverb more and more lately? For example, “that’s super exciting”.

A: A super interesting question. And you’re not imagining things. But let’s rewind first. Super has been an adjective for about 200 years – a shortened version of “superfine”, initially referring to the quality, grade, or size of goods.

Q: So when did it decide to start being an adverb?

A: Well, the 20th century was very kind to the word “super”. From around 1895, people started using it as a way to describe something as pleasing (put on a British accent here). It then had a comeback in the 1960s, but we’ll get to that soon.

Q: We’re still talking about an adjective though, right?

A: Yes, and it cornered the market. We saw the arrival of “super duper”, the Super Bowl, Super Glue, super petrol, super cars, Super Mario Bros. And of course everyone’s favourite hero, Superman.

Q: I think I prefer Aquaman.

A: Not important. So as the century progressed, we saw “super” used more and more. It got super greedy and wanted to be everywhere – kind of like a lexical cane toad. Which brings us to adverbs.

Q: Ah yes, adverbs. We meet again.

A: According to America’s Merriam-Webster dictionary, the first sighting of “super” as a stand alone adverb was in 1946. Advertising back then described things as “super great” or “super simple”.

Q: Okay.

A: Remember, “super” was already super at describing things. For example, “that’s a super cake recipe”.

Q: What flavour?

A: Not important. Pay attention.

Q: Okay, go on.

A: Now it wanted to be “super good” at describing things – to become the intensifier of adjectives rather than the adjective itself.

Q: Wow, super sneaky strategy.

A: That’s when we hit the perfect storm, where hot on the heels of 1965’s “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” Mary Poppins we saw “super” make its slang comeback around 1967. Then it declared war on adverbs.

Q: I’m super invested in this story…

A: “Super” slowly began appearing as an adverb in place of “really”, “extremely” or “very” – mainly with young people. So “that’s a really tasty cake” became “that’s a super tasty cake”. Or instead of “wow, that car was extremely cheap” we got “wow, that car was super cheap”. (The “Supercheap Auto” brand was actually launched around this time.)

Q: But it feels like I’ve only noticed “super” as an adverb recently.

A: Some super curious word boffins felt the same way, so a few years ago, they did some studies analysing usage.

Q: And?

A: It turns out that (according to linguist Neal Whitman and others) there was a 500% increase in the use of “super” as an adverb from the mid 1990s to 2015.

Q: That’s a super interesting statistic.

A: What’s more, these studies reported it encroaching even further into how we communicate – for example, modifying prepositions such as, “I was super into rollerblading back in 1997”.

Q: Wow, I actually WAS.

A: It has even started modifying other adverbs – for example, “lift these weights super slowly” and modifying verbs such as “I super hate doing this” or dating app Tinder adding a “super like” option.

Q: You’re right, it really IS a cane toad.

A: Its proliferation as an adverb has definitely upset many literary types.

Q: So, is it here to stay?

A: Considering we seem to be living in a world filled with constant hyperbole, “adverb super” feels right at home today. America’s Merriam-Webster and UK’s Oxford Dictionaries have recognised it as an informal adverb (Australia’s Macquarie has not yet done so). As a writer, we’d say it’s fine to use it informally or in adolescent dialogue – but you’d want to avoid it entirely in formal writing.

Q: Super useful advice! And super easy to follow! Thanks.

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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