What Makes a Superhero Super?

As I alluded to yesterday, I recently saw Spider-man Homecoming with my nephews. It made me think again about superhero names. I touched on them briefly before, thinking about how straightforward they are. The majority of the most popular ones are simple compound nouns, featuring an adjective or noun that defines the character, followed by man or woman (or girl). Spider-man. Batman. Superman. Wonder Woman, etc. The practical, pragmatic explanation for this is to make the characters easily recognisable, and not confused for a rival publisher’s characters. That’s why, after all, Spider-man has his hyphen.

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Holding out for a Hero

When writing about James Joyce last month, I got to thinking about the word hero. Two things made me think about it: the fact that an early draft of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was known as Stephen Hero, and how often I referred to Leopold Bloom as the hero of the novel Ulysses.

On the surface, it seems like a fairly straightforward word. You can think of its meaning pretty easily, I’m sure: someone brave, with exceptional abilities. Someone we can look up to. And this has always been the meaning of the word. It comes from the Greek ἥρως (hērōs), meaning protector or defender, and was often specifically used in Ancient Greek myths to refer to heroes of divine ancestry such as Heracles. So, not so different from how we use it today. Except, as I alluded to in the first paragraph, when we use it as a literary term.

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A Robot? Doesn’t Look Like Anything to Me…

Did you watch Westworld? Enjoy all the twists, and the accompanying guesswork about who might secretly be a…. host? I wanted to write robot there, but a few episodes into the series I noticed that none of the characters seemed to have used the word robot, and I guessed that over the course of the season none of them would (I wasn’t paying very close attention to see if anyone did or not, but I don’t recall noticing the word). Which might seem a little odd, because it’s a series all about robots. Cowboy robots. Most of the characters we see are robots. And they meet the criteria according to the two definitions in the OED:

  • A machine capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically, especially one programmable by a computer
  • (especially in science fiction) a machine resembling a human being and able to replicate certain human movements and functions automatically

But they’re always referred to as hosts. But then, that doesn’t really seem that odd. Because it’s prestige television, and robot isn’t really a prestige word, is it? And I don’t mean to be critical of the producers’ attitude, because I understand their aversion to the word. Because robot just sounds a bit silly, doesn’t it?

It shouldn’t, because it’s a perfectly legitimate word that describes real-life machines that make a lot of our favourite products. But when you hear the word robot, you probably don’t picture this: Continue reading

“Look out, he’s got a hyphen!”

Why does Spider-man have a hyphen in his name? You might not have noticed it before, perhaps because most superheroes don’t have hyphenated names, and you assume the same is true of Spider-man. Bat-man. Iron-man. The-Incredible-Hulk. Doesn’t really work, does it? And yet you’ve probably never noticed Spider-man’s hyphen. Until now. Now, you can’t help but notice it and the name looks weird now, doesn’t it (Spiderman, or Spider Man not being weird at all, of course)? Continue reading