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The Vine: July 11, 2012

Submitted by on July 11, 2012 – 12:41 PM13 Comments

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)

Dear 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.

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  • attica says:

    My Webster's New World Collegiate 1966 (yeah, boyz, I'm old skool) lists 'supra' as 'above, over, beyond', and gives a bunch of other words in which the positioning connotation is overt. Such as 'supraliminal' (antonym of subliminal), 'supraorbital' (above the eyesocket), and my new personal favorite, 'supralapsarian' (any of the Calvinists who hold that god's plan of salvation preceded the fall of man from grace, which had been predestined –obvs!)

    So, yeah, I'd be inclined to limit my use of supra- to instances of positioning rather than those of a quantitative or qualitative sense.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    @attica, I totally read that def too. I loved how it was all, "As opposed to 'infralapsarian,'" like that was what the reader was obviously saying out loud to herself.

  • Jen B. says:

    Sars, can we infer anything about super- vs. supra- from the relationship between inter- (meaning: between) and intra- (meaning: within)?

    Eh, maybe not.

  • Jo says:

    So is supraliminal when the message is REALLY, REALLY obvious? I like that.

  • jennie says:

    Fowler is also silent, and just gives a bit of history about super- as a prefix (showed up in the 15th century, here's a bunch of recent terms like supercluster and super-ego!), which is pretty unhelpful.

    Garner does have a short note on supra as a citational signal in A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage, where he notes that "This citational signal is disfavored in modern legal writing, inasmuch as short-form citations are more convenient for the reader," and then proceeds with an example that is even more impenetrable than that note, so I won't reproduce it here. But that's it. My sense is also that supra- is a much more literal/positional sense where as super- can also cover size, importance, etc…, for what little that's worth. Interesting that there's so little on this.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    @Jen B., I don't think so. The similarity in construction probably had to do with the physical act of joining them to words in the original Latin, and wouldn't extend to the respective definitions.

  • suzy says:

    In medicine, we say that a drug level is "supratherapeutic" (meaning too high), and if a symptom is, um, a bit hypchodriacal, we call it "supratentorial" (the tentorium being a membrane that the brain rests upon….get it? All in their head?) I don't know why we say "supra-" but we would never use "super-" for these.

  • Chris says:

    The OED seems to back up the physical-positioning/figurative distinction, but there's significant overlap.

    In Latin, supra can be an adverb (hence 'supra' in academic writing) or a preposition and super can be a preposition or a prefix. There's little difference in meaning – supra can indicate a higher degree of 'aboveness' or 'beyondness' than super (if I was standing on the table, I'd be super mensa; the ceiling would be supra mensam), but the distinction isn't universally observed.

  • Chris says:

    Excuse double posting – I just read something that suggests that super/supra and inter/intra are sort of analogous – intra (inside) indicates a higher degree of getting-in-amongst-ness than inter (between/among). Which is kind of like how supra is more 'above-y' than super. And like supra, intra can be an adverb, whereas inter is either a preposition or a prefix. But the distinction between inter and intra is strictly observed, unlike super/supra.

    The prefix in Latin is always super, which I think is for morphological reasons. And then English for some reason decided to borrow both as prefixes, and a different distinction of meaning evolved.

  • attica says:

    @suzy, I love it! Reminds me of the acronym used by IT-help staff: PICNIC. Which stands for 'problem in chair, not in computer.'

  • ElizabethA says:

    @attica: ha! Our Help Desk guys are less subtle – they diagnose it as Loose Nut Behind the Keyboard Syndrome. :)

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    I'd like to thank everyone for not pointing out, either here or on the Pillow Fail entry, that Little Ms. Proofreading Fascist had the wrong date on THIS entry for two days. Hee.

  • Addy says:

    Latin nerd here. My Latin dictionary informs me that "supra" (as an adverb or preposition) came from the adjective "superus" (meaning "situated above, upper, higher"), which took on the -a in order to modify an understood "parte" ("part"). The phrase "supra parte" would mean something like "in the higher part" or "on the upper side" or "in the area above" or similar. So yep, spacial more than figurative, going back to the original Latin usage.

    "Super," on the other hand, is more closely analogous to Greek "hyper" and carries with it the same range from "physically above" to "more than enough."

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