Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

It's an Adjective! It's an Adverb! It's "Super"!

With what advertisers are coyly calling the "big game" looming this weekend, I decided it was time to follow up on a feeling that had been growing on me for a while: That I was hearing more and more people using super as an intensifier for adjectives, as in "I'm super excited!"

Whenever you get an impression like this, whether it's about language or anything else, is whether it's true, or you're just experiencing the Frequency Illusion. So I went to the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), the online repository of 450 million words of American English text from 1990 to 2012—wait a minute, this just in—make that 520 million words, from 1990 to 2015! And it turns out, I was right.

As it happens, so was Pooja Bhatia, deputy editor the news site Ozy. In March, 2015, she wrote a column titled "Let's Abolish the Word 'Super'" (which was re-run in December). As she wrote:

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.

But unlike many writers in her position, she actually consulted a linguist to see if she was actually on to something. She went to Geoff Nunberg, the linguist many know as the language commentator on NPR's Fresh Air. He first pointed out to her that super has been used as an adjective modifier for quite some time, which is true: I remember the phrases super simple and super great from a single TV commercial from my youth, and Google Books has super rich going back to at least 1919. Also, the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA) shows that adjective-modifying super has been increasing since around the 1930s, and really started to take off starting in the 1970s. Nunberg also told Bhatia what is common knowledge among sociolinguists: If you think you have a complaint with the language, you actually have a complaint about the people who use it. His specific words were "Your real gripe is with adolescence."

Bhatia didn't stop there, though. She went next to Anne Curzan, a professor of linguistics at the University of Michigan. Curzan did what I did: She went to COCA and found, as I did, that instances of super followed by an adjective were "five times more common during 2010–2012 than 1990–1994."

You may wonder how these numbers are comparable, since 1990-1994 is a period of five years, while 2010-2012 is only three years. This is going by COCA's normalized frequency, given (as usual in corpus linguistics) in words per million.

However, Curzan did her search before the curators of COCA poured in another three years' worth of words, bringing the texts up through 2015. (I didn't realize they had done this until last week, when I did a search for something else, and found a hit referring to Vladimir Putin and Ukraine.) Also, she just searched for super modifying adjectives. She didn't check for super modifying verbs and prepositional phrases, which I was put on the alert for by linguist Matt Gordon via Twitter.

So here's the latest on adverbial super, with new data from COCA. First of all, the trend from the early 1990s onward still holds true as of the end of 2015. In the earlier period, the frequency was 1.36 words per million; in the most recent period, it's 7.94 words per million, an increase of almost 500%. (Depending on how you interpret "five times more common," this is either about the same as what Curzan found, or even more.)

This increase in the frequency of super as an adjective modifier—in other words, doing one of the jobs that an adverb typically does, as Bhatia observed—may have helped it expand into the other adverbial uses. They don't turn up in COHA, but are starting to creep into the data in COCA. There aren't very many, and many of the results that do come in are false positives, but the valid hits that exist definitely sound like something a native English speaker could say these days. I first find super modifying a prepositional phrase in 1999, in this sentence from a golfing magazine: "Three is super off tee, but not off turf." Starting in 2009, the preposition into begins showing up, as in, "I was super into rollerblading which I'm not any more." Here are a couple of good examples of super modifying an adverb:

My job was to "appear," super suddenly, at the climax of this or that cross-questioning

Lift super slowly, taking 10 seconds to raise and 5 to lower.

The earliest example I have found of super modifying a verb is this 2006 COCA example from Rachel Maddow:

And it actually follows what they've done for their media strategy from the very beginning, which is to kind of exalt and super serve the conservative media to the extent that they can, and to undermine and denigrate the mainstream media to the extent that they can.

More common recently, though, is super modifying verbs that express continuous emotional states, such as want, hate, or like, as in these examples that I found outside COCA, in the web at large. The first seems to come from the mid 1990s, in a snippet of translated dialogue from a piece of anime that was unfamiliar to me, called Saiyûki. It contains not only super modifying a verb, but a commentary on that fact, plus a suggestion of hella as a replacement, which is interesting in its own right:

Sha Gojyo: I ain't dyin'. And I tell ya, I super hate to lose.
Genjo Sanzo: Don't say super.
Sha Gojyo: What should I say? Hella hate?

From just last month, here's an example of super want:

I super want a desert tortoise!! (Tortoise Forum)

What may end up being the biggest success story for super modifying verbs is super like. Although I've found examples like this one from 2012—

We (I mean my students and I) super like this song. (Super Simple Learning)

super like got a big boost late last year from the online dating app Tinder. After adding swipe left and swipe right to the general lexicon (see Ben Zimmer's Word Routes column on the contenders for 2015 Word of the Year), Tinder introduced a new button called Super Like:

"I've always said that a match on Tinder is a lot like meeting eyes across the room," said CEO and cofounder Sean Rad. "Super Like is more like going up to someone and saying 'hello'."

It looks like super is super not going to stop its march into adverbial territory.

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Neal Whitman blogs at Literal-Minded, where he writes about linguistics in everyday life from the point of view of a husband and father. He taught English as a second language while earning his degree at Ohio State University; has published articles in Language, Journal of Linguistics, and other publications; and writes occasional scripts for the podcast "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." Click here to read more articles by Neal Whitman.