By Ben Zimmer
Via a court ban, Germany, the nation whose language gave the company Uber its name, has tripped up the ride-sharing service.
This week, the ride-sharing company Uber Technologies Inc. faced a ban on one of its services in the very country to which the company owes its name: Germany.
The Uber app and logo on mobile displays. Germany, the nation whose language gave the company Uber its name, has tripped up the ride-sharing service.
When a Frankfurt court ruled that Uber couldn’t legally run its UberPop service, which connects potential passengers with drivers lacking commercial licenses, many observers took note of the linguistic irony.
Uber’s name comes from the German word über, meaning “over, above,” which also appears as a prefix, as in Friedrich Nietzsche’s Übermensch, translated by George Bernard Shaw as “Superman.”
Thanks to Übermensch, the über- prefix has spread into English as well, frequently losing its umlaut along the way. Attaching “uber-” to a word suggests that something is a transcendent or superlative example of its kind. Indeed, Uber began as UberCab in 2009, before cease-and-desist orders in its hometown of San Francisco encouraged the company to rebrand itself to avoid the appearance that it was marketing itself as a taxicab company.
English already has puffed-up prefixes like “super-,” “hyper-,” “mega-,” and “ultra-,” but starting in the early 1990s, “uber-” has been pressed into service as a slangy alternative. It found popularity among surfers, skaters and snowboarders, who may have been inspired by the Dead Kennedys song “California Über Alles,” a punk take on the nationalist slogan “Deutschland Über Alles” (Germany above all).
“Uber-” has made its way into dictionaries from American Heritage and Merriam-Webster, and the Oxford English Dictionary is drafting an entry as well. According to Katherine Connor Martin, head of U.S. dictionaries at Oxford University Press, evidence from the ’90s onward shows the prefix attaching itself to both nouns (“uber-wimp,” “uber-babe,” “uber-wench”) and adjectives (“uber-hip,” “uber-chic,” “uber-healthy”).
A key popularizer of the prefix was the TV show “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” which ran from 1997 to 2003. Michael Adams, a professor of English at Indiana University who documented the language of the show in his book “Slayer Slang,” told me that both writers and fans of “Buffy” extended “uber-” in innovative directions.
For example, Buffy used the term “the ubersuck” to refer to “the worst possible thing,” juxtaposing a potentially pretentious-sounding prefix with earthy slang. “The slanginess of ‘suck’ pricks the prefix and deflates it some,” Mr. Adams said.
More recently, “uber” has become a stand-alone adjective meaning “exceedingly great.” As the British scholar Julie Coleman notes in her 2012 book “The Life of Slang,” her students say things like “This party is uber!” But devotees of the company Uber may fear that in Germany, the party (at least for now) is more over than uber.
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