On a quick trip to Minneapolis over the weekend, I noticed Southwest Airlines’ slogan, “Is ‘rapider’ a word?” Well, no, I thought. It’s not. That is, you do not find suffixes appended to the adjective rapid to form comparative and superlative forms. Fortunately, in English, you have other choices. You could say faster or quicker, for instance. But those words wouldn’t draw the busy traveler’s attention as easily, and of course they would have no resonance with Southwest’s Rapid Rewards frequent-flyer program.
Then, as I sat waiting for permission to lower my tray table so I’d have somewhere to set my coffee down and get back to my book, I wondered: Why isn’t rapider a word?
In elementary school, we learned that shorter adjectives — quick, smart, big, small, sick, smooth, long, etc. — formed comparatives with -er and superlatives with -est, but longer ones — serious, ridiculous, dysfunctional, etc. — were modified by more and most.
But rapid isn’t that long. It’s no longer than silly, narrow, gentle, or quiet. Its -id ending, shared with adjectives like putrid and florid, seems to dictate its exclusion from -er and -est inflections, just as silly’s -y ending dictates its comparative/superlative formation of changing y to i and adding -er and -est. Rapider doesn’t even sound as strange as the comparatives formed from adjectives already ending in -er, like cleverer and soberer.
Native English speakers know all these variations (and more) in adjective formation from growing up with the language, despite my son’s habit, when young and playing for cuteness, of describing my cookies as “gooder” and our sofa as “comfortabler” than our neighbor’s. The more I thought about it, the less that shorter/longer rule applied. What about a one-syllable adjective like tense? I’m more tense whenever there’s turbulence on a plane flight; most tense during takeoff and landing. I never describe myself as tenser or tensest. Some shorter adjectives — unique, square, evil, normal — have been proposed as absolutes, making it supposedly nonsensical to form comparatives or superlatives; perhaps that’s why we fudge things by generally sticking in most or more rather than adding suffixes.
But that rule doesn’t apply to most of the examples I could think of, at least in the time it took to fly from Minnesota to Connecticut. Arriving home, I looked at etymologies in a rather scattershot way, hoping to find a pattern. Our drawings from Germanic languages tend to be shorter (quick and fast as opposed to rapid), but adjectives like gentle have roots in French and Latin, so there’s not much real consistency there.
In the end, like so much in English, the “rule” is ad hoc. One English as a Foreign Language website I found tried to make sense of it all, but in a way that I’m sure I would find dizzying if I were trying to master this crazy tongue. Just think of fast in the sense of rapid, which easily changes to faster and fastest, whereas fast in the sense of firm, unmoving usually becomes more fast and most fast.
And we tend to change our habits when it comes to forming comparatives and superlatives. Just take a glance at the Google Ngram below to see what’s happened with more pleasant and pleasanter over the last decade.
So who knows? Maybe rapider will be a word, eventually. Maybe even the larger theme of the Southwest Airlines ad campaign, “Transfarency,” that produced the sign I saw, will be a word. Meanwhile, folks in the advertising department, you accomplished your objective. You caught my eye. You got me thinking about it.
Return to Top