I Am So Uber You

Action_Comics_1It began with Nietzsche. Now it’s about taxicabs.

We have entered the world of uberness, or possibly Überness. The Übermensch, Nietzsche suggested in Also Sprach Zarathustra, is an alternative to divine authority, a model for living beyond what he regarded acidly as the restrictive values of organized religion.

Nietzsche’s early translators struggled to English the term Übermensch, and we’re still not really there. Overman, Superman — neither feels quite right. Both feel awfully 1938. On the one hand these English translations bear the taint of mid-century German politics. On the other hand, there’s a reason that Action Comics #1 is the world’s most valuable of all such fragile publications: It’s where the character of Superman made his debut.

The prefix über moved out of German and attached itself, with or without its umlaut, to all sorts of words and concepts. The Oxford English Dictionary provides instances of uber (or über) from the early 1960s onward, though always in combined forms. Thus the OED’s historical archive gives us uber-fan, uber-model, uber-hip, uber-marionnette, uber-modern. (Reorganize that with mathematical economy and you get one uber hip model modern marionette fan.)

The OED does not, however, give us an independent, free-floating uber.

I keep hearing uber used as a modifier, and in unlikely ways. There’s the combinatory “She is, like, so uber-enthusiastic” which is evidently very very enthusiastic.  But there’s also “That was so uber,” which is a bit like saying something is the ne plus ultra. The heroine in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline says that her love is “beyond beyond,” which is totally uber.  

I’m tempted to attribute the rise of uber as an independent signifier to the Uber car-service phenomenon. Uber, founded in 2009, has taken the transportation world by storm — not without challenges, but definitely without umlauts. It’s not Über, and your Uber driver isn’t an Überführer, much less an Übermensch. Even in Germany, where the transportation company has entered the fray, you’ll be taking an Uber.

That umlaut is a sticking point, but one only wishes it were more adhesive, and not less. I wrote a while back on marketing and umlauts and such. In some quarters, marketing is nothing if not diacritical.

Over is a good English word that conflates at least two senses  — above  and finished, or über and kaputt. In English, or at least American, conversation, things can be uber (very), while relationships can be — and frequently are — over. Uber gets you there, and over — well, over just doesn’t.

Our contemporary use of uber as an emphatic modifier might also reflect the  inexhaustible fascination with superheroes. Hollywood seems never to tire of them; witness the current Batman v Superman (I love the deployment of the judicial v here, and am waiting for Justice the Notorious RBG to weigh in).

As a point of theatrical trivia, I note that the Bernstein, Comden, and Green musical On the Town has a minor character, a building superintendent, billed as Mr. Uperman (full name on the character list is S. Uperman).

The show’s even got a musical number that takes place during a taxi ride. In the 1949 film, sailor Frank Sinatra is in the insistent hands of cabbie Betty Garrett.

Nietzsche, contemporary lingo, superheroes, and cab rides. It’s only a matter of time until a script bangs them all into one scenario.

How about Übermensch v Superman?  Now that’d be a movie I’d buy popcorn for.

I might even Uber to the theater.




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