A sublime and superlative quarter of contrasts

A sublime and superlative quarter of contrasts

This June’s OED update is based mainly around some 2,500 SUB- and SUPER- words. Generally speaking, the SUPER- words are upbeat, and the SUB- words are downbeat, or at least concerned with existing or going under or downwards. Both prefixes are derived from Latin, and so almost all of the words in the update range derive from Latin or the later Romance languages. This means that very few of them are found in (Germanic) Old English; SUB- and SUPER- words take off properly in the Middle Ages.
But there’s a twist. Their developmental profile runs more or less in parallel for four hundred years or so. But then, in the seventeenth century, SUB- suddenly starts to become more productive. The pattern seems to become more marked in the eighteenth century, and comes to its climax in the nineteenth century, when over 1,400 new SUB- words are found, in contrast to only 700 SUPER- ones.

It turns out, though, that SUB- had peaked too early. From a high point of 1,400 new SUB- words in the nineteenth century, the rate fell back down to 430 in the twentieth century. As for SUPER-, its graph is more stable into the twentieth century, dropping only from 700 new items to 620.

Does this tell us anything about our society over the last century? Are we more optimistic today; or do we grasp for superlatives too readily?
Here are some of the words from the two categories which have been revised in the current update:

subarctic, subculture, subdivision, subject, subjunctive, (the bright) sublime, submarine, submerge, submission, subordinate, subscribe, subservient, subsidiary, submit, substance, substantive, substitute, subtle, subvert, and subway;

superabundant, superannuate, supercharge, supercilious, supercool, superficial, superhero, superintend, superior, superlative, supermarket, supernatural, supersede, supersonic, superstructure, and supervise.

Super-injunctions and the OED

One of the most recent SUPER- words to make it into the OED is super-injunction. Here is a word that has been in the British news continually (it seems) this year, as celebrities attempt to obtain gagging orders preventing the disclosure of personal information. At the OED, we don’t include new entries until we have determined that they have really found their feet in the language, so it might seem odd to see super-injunction in this release However, as it turns out, we have already lived through that cooling-off period. Once the OED’s researchers got on to the trail of super-injunction we found evidence for it back in 1997. And this shows the wisdom of watching and waiting: when the word was first used in English, it related to a Community Service Order restricting the movement of certain categories of people. As words do, this word broadened its use over the years, and it wasn’t long before the super-injunction was being used by celebrities to restrict the movement of (apparent) facts about them.

New words are often older than we think; and they often shift before they find a more settled place in the language – hence the value of watching and waiting, rather than rushing to judgement.

Super– productivity and American politics

And where else can we observe the onward movement of SUPER-? It has been a particularly productive prefix in American political language in 2012: topical words like super PAC, supermajority, and superdelegate. Again, research took them back to the point where they can be regarded as recent history – and so eligible to join Super Tuesday in the OED.

Following on from the political posturings of SUPER-, we are finding that new words arise – or are reinforced in their existence – through comic books. We already have superman and superwoman (not least thanks, historically, to Nietzsche, Bernard Shaw, and Shirley Conran). But the twentieth-century comic-book heroes are giving these older words a new force, and are probably influencing recent formations such as supermom and supermum, supervillain, superbaby, superkid, and superhunk. But these all have their own history. Look at superkid, in Life magazine of 1909:

There was a little superman
Who had a superwife,
And started out with the intent
To lead a superlife.
In time they had a superkid. [Etc., etc.]

Down and out amongst the updated entries

What can we tell about the older SUB- and SUPER- words that are now going through their first full update for one hundred years?

Sometimes we notice that we are using words which we didn’t know ten years ago, but which are now all around us. That used to happen in the past, too. Back in the mid eighteenth century no one was familiar with the verb to subsidize. The unrevised OED entry suggests that the word and its derivatives are really early-nineteenth century creations. We find this chronology:

Unrevised entries          
Date of first use
subsidize (verb) 1795
subsidized (adjective) 1872
subsidizer (noun) 1870
subsidizing (noun) 1817
subsidizing (adjective) 1884

Realistically, this table does not make sense. There is a noticeable lack of documentary evidence for the word and its derivatives. The old ‘facts’ seem to show only late eighteenth-century use for the verb to subsidize, then the noun subsidizing making its first appearance in 1817, before a gap until the 1870s and 1880s for the other related derivatives – which one might expect to appear at much the same time as the original verb.

In fact, modern documentary evidence shows that although no one seems to have known the verb subsidize before 1750, it emerged quite rapidly in the 1750s, with only the agent noun subsidizer recorded later, in the 1790s. The new table looks like this:

Updated entries              Date of first use Former date of first use
subsidize (verb) 1753 1795
subsidized (adjective) 1753 1872
subsidizer (noun) 1794 1870
subsidizing (noun) 1753 1817
subsidizing (adjective) 1756 1884

This then leads a historical lexicographer, or indeed anyone with an interest in language history, to ask why the word subsidize splashed on to the scene in the 1750s. It would appear from the early references that it was first applied in the sphere of politics and the military: you would ‘subsidize’ or pay money to a foreign country for the provision of military assistance, or you might ‘subsidize’ mercenary troops to provide fighting power. Lexical information suggests that the word perhaps came to prominence with reference to news about the War of the Austrian Succession in the mid eighteenth century.

While subsidize is an example of a word that seems to have made its mark quickly subsidy itself was a much slower burner. The word was borrowed into English from French in the Middle Ages, first in a general sense (‘help, aid’) and then in a more specific sense (‘a tax levied on imports and exports’).

An interesting development is in the secondary information on how the type of tax levied on imports and exports since the Middle Ages has changed. In the fifteenth century the subsidy was normally a tax levied on cloth, wool leather, and skins. During the Tudor period it became a tax on movables (any kind of property that was not ‘fixed’), and at the end of the seventeenth century the rates were increased and the old ‘subsidy’ became known as the ‘New Subsidy’. So here we have a case not of sudden change, but of slow, evolutionary and incremental lexical change keeping pace with the changes in society over centuries, here recorded by means of a note in the entry.

Usage note

The universe of retcons

Meanwhile we have kept our binoculars on new words creeping into the language elsewhere. For example, ‘retroactive continuity’ (or ‘retcon’) is narrative continuity which takes into account new facts which alter the previous storyline: much the same as new material for subsidize alters the way we must interpret the word over time. Retcon (the short form) dates from at least 1989; the full form is recorded from 1983.

Around the same time we have the emergence of new words created by adding –verse (snapped off from universe), to create a new type of universe of the type suggested by the first element (docuverse, nerdiverse, the [Harry] Potterverse). For the first of these (docuverse/document universe) it seems we have to thank T. H. Nelson, whose prolificality has previously supplied us with hypertext.

John Simpson
Chief Editor, OED
13 June 2012

Where next?
You can look at the full list of new words, new sub-entries, and new senses here.


Image attributions
‘Superhero’. Author: Thibault fr on Wikimedia Commons.
‘Profile of a warrior in helmet’. Wikimedia Commons.

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