Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Celebrating "Super Tuesday": The Etymology of "Super" and Its Synonyms

Whether or not you live in the United States, if you follow the news, you've probably heard that yesterday was "Super Tuesday", a date when primary elections were held in several states as part of the excruciatingly long process of choosing presidential candidates. We've had enough of politics lately, but the term "Super Tuesday", which dates back to the 1970s, did get us thinking about the etymology of "super". That's why today we're looking at the origins of "super" and many of its synonyms, including "fantastic" and "wonderful".

Super - This word comes from an identical Latin word meaning "above, over, beyond". It was first used to mean "excellent" in the 1830s. Unsurprisingly, it is related to superb, which comes from the Latin superbus.

The Karkonosze Mountains in Poland
look like a marvelous place to visit.
Marvelous - As merveillos in Old French, this term referred to "causing wonder", but has been used in a more generic sense since the 1920s.

Wonderful - Derived from the Old English term wunderfoll, this term was originally used to refer to something that caused wonder or surprise. Nowadays, it's primarily used in a generic way to refer to something excellent.

Excellent - After starting out as excellentem in Latin, this word became excellent in Old French, which we still use today.

Magnificent - Old French also gave us the word magnificent in the mid-15th century, which was derived from the Latin term magnificentior.

Fantastic - Related to the word fantasy, this word came to English via the Greek term phantastikos, Latin fantasticus, and finally Middle French fantastique in the 14th century. It originally referred to things "existing only in imagination", but since the 1930s has been used as a synonym for "wonderful" and the many other words we're looking at today.

Amazing - This one comes from the Old English term amasian, meaning "causing wonder and amazement". It has been used in its generic sense since the early 1700s.

Great - If you prefer English terms of Germanic origin, you'll be pleased to hear that great has several cognates in Germanic languages, including groot in Dutch, groƟ in German, and grut in West Frisian. While it is still used to refer to things that are "big" and "tall", it has also been used as a synonym for "excellent" since the late 1840s.

Terrific - Oddly enough, terrific originally meant "frightening", and came from the Latin term terrificus, which means "causing terror or fear". While the closely related term terrible kept these negative connotations, terrific somehow inverted its meaning to mean "excellent" starting in the late 1880s.

This white peacock has awesome plumage.
Awesome - While some people still use this word in its original sense to refer to something "awe-inspiring", since the 1980s, it has most frequently been used to refer to something "very good". It is derived from the word awe, which made its way into English via a Germanic language, perhaps the Old Norse term agi, meaning "fright".

Fabulous - Last but not least, we have fabulous, which made its way into English via Latin fabulosus. While it originally meant "mythical" due to its connections to the term fable, it has been used to mean "incredible" since around 1600, and in the 1950s finally became used in an even more generic way.