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In English usage the prefix "über" (loaned from German) has the meaning of:

über-, uber-: denoting an outstanding or supreme example of a particular kind of person or thing. Oxford Dictionaries

There is a similar meaning in German usage as well (e.g. "Übergenau", "Überbevölkerung", "überglücklich") but there are other words where "über-" seems to have another meaning:

  • Überlegung/überlegen = consideration/to consider
  • Überweisung = transfer
  • Überraschung = surprise
  • Übersetzung = translation

How is this usage in German different to the English usage?

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2 Answers 2

up vote 5 down vote accepted

There is quite the nice article at the English Wikipedia on the topic, also explaining the meaning of the term in German.

I was actually right with my guess that the English usage originates in Nietzsche's "Übermensch":

The crossover of the term "über" from German into English goes back to the work of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. [...] The term was brought into English by George Bernard Shaw in the title to his 1903 play Man and Superman. During his rise to power, Adolf Hitler bastardized Nietzsche's term, using it in his descriptions of an Aryan master race. It was in this context that American Jewish comic book creator Jerry Siegel encountered the term and conceived the 1933 story "The Reign of the Super-Man", in which "Superman" is "an evil mastermind with advanced mental powers".[...] Throughout the following decade, Siegel, and Joseph Shuster, recast Superman into the iconic American hero he subsequently became. It is through this association with Superman the hero that the term "über" carries much of its English sense implying irresistibility or invincibility.

So there is a very big difference between the usage of those terms in English and German, they're really "false friends".

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"Über" has roughly the same meaning as the English word "over", but some uses are more metaphorical than others:

  • Übertragung (transmission): literally translates to "carrying it over".
  • Überlegung (thought): thinking it over.
  • Überbevölkerung: overpopulation.
  • Übergenau: overly precise.
  • Überglücklich: overly happy.

For some reason, English speakers loaned the word only in its meaning of "overly/very much/too much", and not in the meaning of "across" or "about", but in German usage, there's not really a clear distinction.

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I would actually say it comes from Nietzsche's term "Übermensch". It was actually meant as a being "above" the man ("über" also means "above", as in "das Bild hängt über dem Regal") in a more or less evolutionary way. However, it instead got the notion of a "super" kind of man - and a very sad counterpart in "Untermensch". For some reason the English world picked up the "super" notion and use it in this way till today. –  ladybug Jul 20 '11 at 13:45
    
@Ladybug: If you wrote that comment as an answer and elaborated a few bits I'd say it's a pretty acceptable answer. –  Jemus42 Jul 21 '11 at 0:30
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Nietzsche's word Übermensch was also used by the Nazis in their rhetoric about the Herrenrasse (the master race). Further, the opposite term, Untermensch, was used in eugenics. So to the non-native speakers: be very careful when using it. It does have a very dark connotation outside of philosophical circles. –  Stefano Palazzo Jul 23 '11 at 14:19
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