Vibranium is the anti-kryptonite: an empowering lexical development
Director Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther – which has made over a billion dollars, becoming the most successful superhero movie ever – is a visceral, complex, relevant, fun film. Like other pop culture sensations, Black Panther is influencing the lexicon.
Names from the movie are everywhere, including the lead character’s real name T’Challa, his genius sister Shuri, the sympathetic villain Killmonger, and the elite female warriors known as the Dora Milaje. Wakanda might be the most successful term, especially in the phrase ‘Wakanda forever’. A greeting from this futuristic fictional country has also caught on: crossed arms thumped against your own chest. Whether you call it the Wakandan salute or Black Panther handshake, proper form is right arm over left, as actor Daniel Kaluuya, who played W’Kabi in the film recently clarified.
Then there’s vibranium: a word for a fake metal that is capable of making everything from bulletproof catsuits to revolutionary medical techniques and superhero-creating herbs. This all-powerful substance has been around since 1966 (thanks to Black Panther co-creators Jack Kirby and Stan Lee) in comics but hasn’t been part of widespread pop culture till now – and the word is on the rise, especially in social media. From the uses I’ve seen, vibranium is in the early stages of becoming the opposite of Superman-weakening kryptonite. Just as that word can name any weakness, vibranium can name all sorts of power sources and mood boosters. And just like the movie that spawned the term, vibranium is particularly empowering to black fans.
Some uses are of vibranium are literal, and many are humorous wishes. Thanks to my garbage neck, I can relate to @BrooksLife012, who wrote, ‘I have been dealing with this neck cramp for 3 days now. I need some vibranium.’ A similar sentiment is voiced by @HSHToria: ‘If I could get my hand on just a little vibranium, my whole life could change dramatically.’ And @bahsil paid the ultimate technological compliment: ‘I swear steve jobs put vibranium in my iPhone. I have no clue how it’s still functional at this point. *knocks on wood*’ These uses are clever but don’t quite stretch the meaning of vibranium.
Other folks take the term in a more original direction by creating compounds for fanciful things and conditions. The weary of the world nodded along when @AyeYoVontay wrote, ‘I need to get my vibranium levels back up!’ The sci-fi medicine of the movie is shifted to real life pharmacology by @lanzwelsoundz: ‘3days off from my deliveries job coz of not taking enough of my Vibranium meds. Stuffed-Up…’ I’ve also seen references to a vibranium sleep supplement, which is probably available at any Wakandan drugstore.
Speaking of drugs, some have called the vibranium-infused liquid that gives T’Challa superpowers vibranium juice, and that term has morphed to cover more mundane drinks. Tweeter @andoculture joked, ‘Just realised Supermalt is actually vibranium juice.’ For another type of vibranium juice, get thee to Voorhees, NJ. Their Iron Hill Brewery deserves major geek props for creating Vibranium IPA, which is ‘a Cascadian IPA reserved for royalty and only found in the vaults of Wakanda. Notes of rich dark chocolate and coffee are balanced by citrus and pine from a blend of American hops.’ Sold.
Those uses are creative, but other examples go further, transforming vibranium into a true metaphor and versatile lexical item. For example, this statement by @Gu_TRILL could point the way to vibranium’s lexical future: ‘Coffee is my vibranium tbh.’ Similarly, @BriKgotit wrote, ‘You should know better. I’m Caribbean, coconut water is my Vibranium.’ I’ve seen others write, ‘You are my vibranium’, ‘My mom is my vibranium’, and ‘Chicken wings are my vibranium.’ In a romantic tweet including a picture of his wife, @Save_ge12 writes, ‘I don’t need to go to Wakanda, I got my vibranium right here.’ Similarly, a self-labeled brand therapist named Naya says, ‘There is something that you have an abundance of. So what’s your vibranium?’
These uses are a perfect mirror of the ultimate geek substance, kryptonite. The Oxford English Dictionary defines kryptonite, which first appeared in a Superman radio serial in 1943, like so:
So a future definition of vibranium might be: In the fictional world of the comic book hero Black Panther: a substance that makes Black Panther strong and powerful and can be used in wondrous technology. Hence in figurative or allusive use: something that can strengthen or enhance a particular person or thing; a power source.
But that definition would miss a key element of these early examples: like Black Panther, metaphorical vibranium is particularly appealing and useful for people of color, who dominate recent uses.
This sense is explained by comedian Amanda Seales in an article from Georgetown student newspaper The Hoya by Karena Landler and Erin Doherty. Seales made a comparison that could anchor a future OED entry for vibranium:
Black culture has been commodified, appropriated and consumed in so many different ways and so many different facets that I’m very protective of that and I’m very protective of what I’m giving to that. There is no [TV] network that has approached me that I felt would be protective of the growing and glowing powers of my ‘vibranium’.