The headline has proven irresistible: “Uber über alles?”
Startup Uber, the app-based car service, has quickly become an international, multibillion-dollar transportation behemoth, challenging conventional taxi companies in cities around the world. As it has, puns highlighting a certain former line in the German national anthem have been popping up in publications from New York magazine to the BBC’s website.
“Deutschland, Deutschland über alles” (“Germany, Germany above all”) probably isn’t the association that Uber was going for when the company chose its name. (In Germany, those words have been removed from the national anthem for their connection with the Third Reich.) In America, the word “uber”—with or without the umlaut—has become a relatively common, if slangy, synonym for “super” or “topmost”; it reflects what Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has called in interviews the company’s “disruptive” ambitions
But that lighthearted meaning is a new one. “Uber” has traveled a long way in English, starting with Nietzsche and along the way touching Superman, the outsize ambitions of the 1980s, and online gaming. And as the puns prove, 130 years of not-entirely-benign word linkages are not shed so easily.
In German, “über” simply means “over” or “above.” As a prefix it adds a heightened or superior level, literally or figuratively, to whatever it modifies. An “überflieger” is a high-flyer or overachiever; “überdurchschnittlich” means “above average.” Friedrich Nietzsche’s “übermensch,” in his 1880s work “Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” describes a superior and self-reliant human. It was not immediately obvious how to translate the term; the first English version, in 1896, translates übermensch as “beyond-man.” But after George Bernard Shaw chose “Man and Superman” for the title of a 1903 play, parts of which reflect on Nietzsche’s philosophy, subsequent translations kept the more familiar “superman.”
Although Nietzsche himself disavowed anti-Semitism, the Nazis adopted the concept of the “übermensch” as representing their ideal of the Aryan master race. For a while, “superman” had a strong pull on the Anglo eugenicist imagination, too. In the British Eugenics Review in 1909, Maximilian Mügge wrote that Nietzsche would help inspire men to “an ideal of a race of supermen, as superior to present mankind...as man is superior to the worm.” Then came Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s comic “The Reign of the Superman” in 1933. Soon Superman was a hero battling Nazis and delivering supplies to American troops overseas, and the word lost its association with racial perfection. In the 1950s, uncomfortable with the vision of the Ubermensch of Steel, Nietzsche’s English translators started using “overman” instead.
After World War II, “uber” (often in italics and/or with umlaut, or spelled as “ueber” in the days when newspaper printers couldn’t do diacriticals) had a difficult few decades. Now associated with Hitler’s project of world domination, it was used in English mostly to play on the German anthem. This could be humorous, as in a 1970 Washington Post fashion spread that described a magazine waging a “midi[-skirt] uber alles battle,” or pointed, as in the 1979 Dead Kennedys song “California Über Alles,” in which Governor Jerry Brown plots his rise to führer and tells his subjects, “You will jog for the master race/And always wear the happy face.” Uber- as a prefix wasn’t common, except in reference to Nietzsche (or in a 1979 “Saturday Night Live” Superman parody featuring “Uberman”). In a 1975 New York Times review of novelist J.P. Donleavy’s satiric guide to social climbing, “The Unexpurgated Code,” John Leonard writes: “he has created...an Uber-climber, seething with resentment, irrepressibly lustful, blatant in his self-destructiveness.”
Then came the very decade of the uber-climber—the 1980s. Suddenly it was great to belong to, as one 1985 Chicago Tribune article quotes the author of “The Preppie Handbook” calling them, “the generation of the Ubermensch and Ubermenschette.” The ’80s was a time of intensifier inflation—“super,” “ultra,” and “mega” also got swept up in the madness. As the overclass became something to aspire to, “uber” lost most of its associations with Hitler or racial purity. The Washington Post’s Curt Suplee described “uber-swag” and an “uber-caste party,” as in super-duper-upper-class, in 1983. “Porsche uber Alles,” read a proud slogan at the 1985 Porsche Club National Conference, according to the L.A. Times.
Over the next 20 years, “uber” largely ditched its umlauts and italics, and its meaning broadened. Uber and super are now often used interchangeably, both as modifying adjectives or adverbs and as prefixes (“ubermodel,” “ubermillionaire”)—uber perhaps retaining a bit of extra Prussian oomph. The word also moved online, describing serious skill or intense evil in online games, according to Daniel Kutz, a doctoral student at Indiana University Bloomington who writes about online language, as in an “uber-boss” in the game “Diablo III,” or “ubers” (high-level opponents) in Pokémon games.
When today’s Uber began as Uber Cab in 2009, actual cab drivers—with their elaborate regulations and expensive medallions—were concerned: Was this unlicensed upstart trying to declare itself the Superman of cabs? Uber dropped “cab” from its name, opening itself to a much broader interpretation of what it might be planning to take “uber.” One indicator of its success is how, five years later, the name has expanded semantically. At first it was “I’ll order you an Uber,” turning the brand into a noun; now it’s an action, as in “I’ll just Uber home.”
This kind of verb-ification of a brand name is “the holy grail” of marketing, Paul Parkin of Salt Branding told me. But it also brings some risk: With Uber becoming almost a generic term, the company is the most obvious target for anti-ridesharing anger. Its success has triggered regulatory challenges and lawsuits in many cities where it operates, including a June lawsuit in Boston accusing the company of exploiting its drivers. As Uber expands into Europe and Asia, its name could prove fateful. For observers, it’s all too tempting to bring the word back to its roots, and connect the company with past uber-lords who also sought “disruption” on a global scale.
Britt Peterson is a writer in Washington, D.C.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Daniel Kutz as a professor and misstated the name of the university where he is affiliated. He is a doctoral student at Indiana University Bloomington.