The Vine: July 11, 2012
I'm hoping you can clarify a language question — I can't find anything about it in Garner, nor in Strunk and White. Google offered me some explanations, but they weren't very helpful. And I don't know of any other reliable place to look.
What's the difference between the prefixes "supra-" and "super-"?
English Literature Grad Student (Sigh)
My first-instinct, before-looking-it-up answer is that they mean the same things — above, higher than, over, etc. — but that "supra" is more literal, to do with physical position, while "super" can refer to physical location but also has figurative connotations.
I could sell that if I absolutely had to…but I've only had the two cups of coffee so far today, so it's probably bullshit. To the library, prefix fans!
…Well, I didn't find anything in Garner either (I have an older edition that I checked just in case). Choose The Right Word, the Chicago Manual, and Zinsser: goose egg. Then I figured my best bet was to check various dictionary editions to see if any of them added a longer usage note to either of the entries — but Webster's 9C, 10C, and 11C did not. Webster's New World (1952) did not. Barnhart did not.
What these tomes do tell us: 1) "supra" is "akin to" or "linked to" the word "super," like, that we got, thanks; 2) "supra" means "above, beyond, earlier; transcending" and pretty much only those things, whereas "super" can mean all sorts of other things like "exceeding," "the next one," "containing one ingredient in a large proportion," and "superior" (click the prefix listing here for the whole shebang); 3) I wasn't totally off-base with my guess (I…guess? "Transcending" is pretty broad).
As a grad student, though, you may find yourself using the adverb "supra," which means "earlier in this writing : ABOVE" — and you don't use "super" for that. You may also find yourself wondering if "super" isn't a bit too colloquial for formal/academic writing thanks to the adjectival form ("That's just super!"), which can present as gooby.
Brass tacks: "Super" seems to have more to do with size or quality of the thing/situation, while "supra" seems to regard the position or placement of it, on the literal level — but unless it's an in-text reference to a previous notation, you probably want to use "super" just based on how much more ground that prefix covers. If you're not sure, hit the dictionary to see which one says what you really mean.
Hope this was marginally more helpful than your Google-age, though I suspect it wasn't.
Tags: Bryan Garner grammar our friend English Strunk & White William Zinsser