Today will see the New England Patriots playing the New York Giants in Indianapolis, in what is billed (in the lofty Roman numerals XLVI) as the 46th Super Bowl game. As the announcers will no doubt remind us over and over, the Super Bowl is one of the most-watched events of the television year; last year, Super Bowl XLV was seen by more than 111 million people, making it the most-watched television show ever. With so many people paying attention, the name “Super Bowl” seems almost understated. Why not the Amazing Tremendous Mega-Stupendous Awesome Bowl?
It may be a remnant of “Mad-Men”-era understatement, or just left over from a time where branding wasn’t the main concern of every organization, but there’s something comforting about the simplicity of the “Super Bowl” name. It’s not the “Insert Corporate Name Here Bowl,” as many of the college bowl games have become--“Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl,” anyone? Nor is it as dryly literal as, say, the PGA Players Championship. The name “Super Bowl” neatly balances the descriptive with the evocative. And it’s perhaps partly for that reason that, in less than 50 years, the event by that name has grown to seem like such a natural and solid fixture of our national calendar.
The Super Bowl originally had a more prosaic name: The first two games were officially called the “AFL-NFL Championship Game,” with “Super Bowl” becoming official with the third game in 1968. (The Roman numerals didn’t show up until the fifth Super Bowl game, in 1970.) The name “Super Bowl” is credited to Lamar Hunt, the owner of the Kansas City Chiefs and the founder of the American Football League, who said he took the name from his daughter’s Wham-O Super Ball toy. (The word bowl used for football games most likely comes from the bowl-shaped Yale Bowl stadium.) Pete Rozelle, the league’s commissioner, didn’t like the word super--according to the league’s publicity director at the time, Don Weiss (interviewed by Michael MacCambridge for his book “America’s Game”), Rozelle thought it had “no sophistication.”
The NFL has a trademark on Super Bowl, and also on Super Sunday. In 2006 the NFL tried to trademark another prominent phrase used around today’s matchup: The Big Game. After vigorous protests not only by Stanford University and the University of California, who have been playing a Big Game against each other since 1892, but also by KFC, Anheuser-Busch, and Domino’s Pizza, all of whom have run Big Game promotions or advertising (in what’s known as “ambush marketing,” where evocative terms are used to associate products with the Super Bowl without using the words Super Bowl), the trademark request was withdrawn the next year.
Via the Super Bowl, the word super has become so associated with important contests that many other sporting events have appropriated it. There are direct knockoffs like the Superbrawl events of the World Championship Wrestling and the SuperClash of the American Wrestling Association (although whether pro wrestling is a sport or just a spectacle is debatable). Then there are more genteel occasions, such as the Super G (for “giant”) ski slalom events and the Super Derby horse race held at Louisiana Downs. Motorsports are especially likely to be super: There are Superbike, Supercross, and Supermoto motorcycle races; Super DIRTcar modified stock car races; Superkart go-kart races; the Porsche Supercup Formula One races; the Super GT grand touring car races in Japan; and the V8 Supercars of Australia. Super events occur at all levels, from the Super Six World Boxing Championship to the Super Eight Massachusetts high school hockey playoffs. The word even works in other languages. There’s the Supercoppa Italiana (basically, the Italian Super Cup) for soccer; Bangladesh and Bosnia-Herzegovina also have Super Cup soccer events. (The Super Smash Brothers Melee event of Major League Gaming, the pro circuit for video gamers, is named after the video game, and so is not properly a super-named event.)
While baseball is a terrific source of English metaphor in general (hardball, home run, strike out, screwball, thrown a curve, home base, and so on), the World Series doesn’t seem to have the same me-too connotative power as the Super Bowl, even though it’s been around longer, since 1884. Unlike the oddly named World Series, which, after all, includes just two countries, most of the other events with world in the title are exactly that: championships that they involve teams from more than one continent. There are World Cups for soccer and cricket and rugby (and snooker and luge and ten-pin bowling); there’s the Dubai World Cup horse race, the Roller Derby World Cup, and Canoe Slalom World Cup. All have more international participation than the average World Series, and it would be a stretch to say that any of them have been inspired by the baseball event’s name.
Despite all the talk of baseball being America’s pastime, it turns out that America likes super better than world. In less than 50 years, the Super Bowl has gone from an inter-league championship game to a quasi-public holiday; it is now our template for what a contest should look like. The Super Bowl may in fact be the Platonic ideal of a name for a sporting event: strong, direct, uncomplicated. In short, it’s super.
Erin McKean is a lexicographer and founder of Wordnik.com. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.