WORDS: SUPER

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The Independent Culture
Tony Blair's plan to appoint "super nurses" to our hard-pressed hospitals left me calling for a kidney bowl.

But then I wondered why. What was it that brought on this vague feeling of nausea? Was it Mr Blair's oh-so-caring way of expressing himself? Or was it the unsocialist whiff of elitism? Not really. I think it must have been the word super that got me.

It certainly annoyed the nursing profession, which believes that all nurses are super anyway. But that depends on how you write it. As reported, the phrase was printed as two words - "super nurse" - which looked as though the accent could go equally well on the second word as on the first.

In his speech last week, Mr Blair would have pronounced it as a single word, with the accent on its first half. Thus, it would class the nurses with supertankers, and with the superbugs that resist antibiotics and look as though they are going to need more than a few supernurses to defeat them.

If it's one word, super is just the Latin prefix meaning "over and above" as in words like superintendent, as well as in less complimentary ones like superfluous and superannuated and the ludicrous "Supermac" of Vicky's cartoons.

If it's two, then the word becomes an adjective, as in traditional postcards language: "Having a super time, wish you were here." That's the trouble with it. As an adjective, super is distressingly banal.

Its origins are humdrum enough. The OED says it began as a kind of tradesman's jargon - a shortening from superficial in the expression "superficial foot", which was an old term for "square foot". Or from superfine cloth, or any other product of which the manufacturer felt particularly proud, and could charge more for. (Oil companies were using it in this way when they put "super" on their higher-octane petrol pumps.)

That was all it meant in the middle of the 19th century. Not much magic there. It wasn't until the 1930s that it became a full-blown adjective in its own right, an ingenuous word for anything pleasant, used at first mainly by schoolchildren and Bright Young Things.

Today one hardly ever hears it, except, I fancy, as a bit of camp. It must have already been getting tired when, realising that it didn't mean a lot, people began to soup it up by saying "super-dinner" instead, a habit we got from the States.

But this too is quite passe now. It survives among some users of the Atex computer-setting system, which has three shift-levels, labelled respectively shift, supershift and hypershift, sometimes called superdupershift: it's a mere technical term.

So much for the adjective. It can also be a noun. A "super" is a superior sort of police officer. Or a person with a walk-on part in a film's crowd scene.

If I were a nurse, even a good one, I'm not sure I would be all that flattered by having "super" as part of my job description.

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