Kryptonite, brainiac, and other Superman language
The mark left by Superman on today’s pop culture landscape is incalculable; not only has he been featured in comic strips and books, radio and television series, films, and video games, he is also referenced everywhere, from pop songs (“Sunshine Superman” by Donovan, for instance) to sitcoms (some claim that every episode of Seinfeld has at least one Superman reference). Given this ubiquity, it should come as no surprise that Superman has made quite a dent on our language.
The etymology of Superman begins with philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who applied the German word Übermensch (literally “Overman”) to a concept in his philosophical novel Thus Spoke Zarathustra, published in parts between 1883 and 1891. Nietzsche used Übermensch to refer to an idealized man of the future, who would transcend Christian values to create his own morality and sense of values.
The translation of Nietzsche’s Übermensch as Superman is usually attributed to Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, whose 1903 play Man & Superman reflects on Nietzschean themes. (Earlier translations of Nietzche used beyond-man, overman or retained Übermensch.) A few decades later, inspired by Nietzsche’s idea of the Superman, Jerry Siegel, who, along with artist Joe Shuster, created Superman, wrote a short story, “The Reign of the Superman,” about a man with telepathic powers dreaming of world domination. Later, inspired by a Detective Dan comic, Siegel crafted the Superman character we are familiar with today, and borrowed the name from his previous story. Thus we end up with Superman, connected in name only to Nietzsche’s concept.
While the use of super- as a prefix meaning ‘above’ or ‘higher than’ has been around for centuries (the OED cites an instance of superhuman as early as 1599) and terms like super-chef, super-boss, and super-patriot had been around for several decades before Superman’s debut, the Superman comics helped to spread the prefix, especially as affixed to the names of people. Comic book characters that stemmed directly from Superman, such as Superwoman, Superboy, Supergirl, and Superbaby, also popularized the prefix. Among the many different words that came into usage, there are superbabe, supermom, and superhunk.
The term brainiac originates in a Superman comic, as the name of a villain. Created not by Siegel and Shuster, but by Otto Binder and Al Plastino in 1958, Brainiac (a portmanteau of brain and maniac) is a super-intelligent humanoid alien and central foe to Superman. Today, although brainiac still refers to someone possessing exceptional intelligence, the term has shed its villainous connotations (though negative connotations are still possible).
Kryptonite is the ore form of a radioactive element found on Superman’s home planet of Krypton, and its radiation deprives Superman and other Kryptonians of their powers, while lending those same powers to humans on Earth. The idea of Superman having a weakness has long resonated with audiences, so much so that the word kryptonite acquired a figurative meaning referring to any specific weakness. Sportswriters seem to favor this figurative usage; for instance, a 2012 New York Times article about baseball pitcher R.A. Dickey observes, “For him, moisture is a sort of Kryptonite, rendering his knuckleball ineffectual.” Another example of this figurative usage is when someone refers to a love interest as their kryptonite, indicating that their attraction renders them helpless and weak. One Direction offers a neat example of this romantic trope in their song “One Thing”, when they profess, “You’re my kryptonite / You keep making me weak / Yeah, frozen and can’t breathe.”
So from pop songs (Donovan and One Direction!) to the sports section, the language of Superman is everywhere, some of it dating all the way back to Siegel and Shuster. Keep an eye out and you will notice that even the subtler Superman references (Fortress of Solitude, anyone?) turn out to be everywhere.