super-awesome and superawesome

When I try to post something on WordPress, I get a checkbox to announce whether my post is “super-awesome” or not. I’m sure this is part of WordPress’s “Surprise Me” feature that is intended to bring a little bit more excitement to blogging.

The hyphenation is interesting, but caused me to think of the multiple meanings of “super” when used as a free or a bound morpheme. They both mean “more”, as in supersonic meaning “faster than the speed of sound” or super-awesome meaning “more awesome”. However, there is a subtle meaning distinction — the bound morpheme has the connotation of quantity to it, so a supercomputer has more abilities than a regular computer; while the free morpheme has an association of quality, as in a super computer is simply a really good computer.

More evidence of the subtle distinctions include superman (who has more abilities than a regular man) and super man (who may just be a really good person); superconductor (a material that has an electric resistance of zero) and super conductor (something or someone which conducts particularly well).

This may be why making the compound superawesome seems weird to most people — there aren’t quantifiable levels of awesomeness that can be modified with the bound super-, which requires us to use it as a free morpheme or, as WordPress did, with a hyphen.

And since I started writing this post, my colleague Fawn pointed out this headline: Super Bowl tickets have super prices — and not in a good way. The polysemy of “super” is, in this case, what makes this headline catchy (or, at the very least, confusing enough to get readers to go to the actual article).

(Thanks to Bill and Fawn for their input on this topic!)

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