Why you should care

Because you are what you say.

Trying to make yourself understood? From the minds of OZY, the kings and queens of clear communication, comes Crossed Wires, a series of immodest solutions for all of your communicative problems.

The correspondent apologizes for his delay; he has been super busy. The boss says the opportunity is super exciting. My cousin wants to introduce a super talented friend. A colleague urges me to see Birdman for the super hilarious/pathetic Times Square scene. The Internet service provider will keep me super connected at a super low price. The sublet is super close to the Caltrain, which makes it super convenient. Super helpful, thank you!

Has it come to this? “Super” is all at once ubiquitous and in a most perverse position: as an adverb, the kind that modifies an adjective. The adverbial super has usurped “really” (really!) and “pretty,” and has left “very” so far in the dust that the latter has acquired a kind of anachronistic charm. And no, we are not super tired of “super.” We are exhausted, worn out, bored and annoyed. Our ears wince.

“Super + adjective” was five times more common during 2010–2012 than 1990–1994.

Adverbs are suspicious to begin with, often a mark of imprecision or laziness. And “super,” when used as a one-size-fits-all intensifier, suggests nothing so much as a lack of verbal imagination. As a relative newcomer to Silicon Valley, I assumed the adverbial super was a local tic, a crutch for people who think in IPO term sheets or, say, HTML5. Nope: It’s pervaded the country, all the way to literary New York. How else to explain the author friend who just sent notice of her new website — comprehensive but “super basic.” The formation is hardy, a weed that resists stamping out.

Crankiness loves company, and so I called Geoff Nunberg, whose deep, sonorous voice you might know from his stints opining on language and usage for Fresh Air, the NPR program. (He also teaches at the UC Berkeley School of Information.) But Nunberg shared neither my hypothesis nor my irritation. “‘Super’ has been used in this way for quite some time,” he admonished, and from there it just got worse. The annoyance I feel, he said, has more to do with my allegedly advanced age than aesthetics. “Your real gripe is with adolescence,” he said in that authoritative bass.

(Nunberg did, however, share my dislike of adverbs in general: “The world would be a better place without most of them.”)

Righteousness is not easily dissuaded. I found another linguist, this one named Anne Curzan, a University of Michigan professor. Reader, she entertained my hypothesis! She even searched something called the Corpus of Contemporary American English, a database of spoken and written English, on my behalf. The result: “super + adjective” was five times more common during 2010–2012 than 1990–1994. Curzan, who said she doesn’t mind the trend at all, added, via email, “I haven’t done a formal poll, but my very informal poll indicates that ‘super fast’ is definitely faster than ‘really fast.’”

For now, anyway. Whether you use the adverbial super or scorn it like I do, the linguists all agree on one thing: Super, too, shall pass. It will give way to another intensifier, and then another, and then another, and maybe someday, I will find “super” quaint too. As Nunberg put it: “Your consolation is that soon ‘super’ will be replaced by something else which you also find annoying.”

Comments welcome, especially if you can make one without using the dreaded s-word.

This OZY encore was originally published March 10, 2015.

Comment

OZYImmodest proposal

Propositions that fall on the continuum between controversial and utterly insane. Sometimes we're tongue-in-cheek. Sometimes, dead serious.