From an 1827 edition of Paradise Lost. You can tell it’s especially fancy because it has the u. And the comma tells you to expect more – you can always expect more from a superior person.

Superior is Latin for ‘higher’. In English, it is a word for a boss or a bossy person, someone who is noteworthy or a footnote, someone or something that is the greatest, or the highest, or just all wet: upper crust or uppity and crusty, super or spurious. Unlike its antonym inferior, superior can refer to reality or pretension; like inferior, it can refer to physical position or more abstract qualities.

A truly superior person or thing has greater qualities: finer, rarer, nobler, more intelligent, more attractive. A person with a superior attitude simply pretends to such, and is in fact inferior and infuriating. A person may also be a superior: a boss, someone superordinate in the command chain. A supervisor, a manager. Paradoxically, a person may have superior qualities for an inferior position – be very good at doing the work – but inferior qualities as a superior – not good at managing those who do the work. Their superiority peters out, as per the Peter Principle. But we naturally hope that our superiors are persons of superior personal qualities. And sometimes they are.

Superior is the name of a lake, the largest of the great lakes, the farthest north, and the highest in elevation. It has fewer people living on its shores than the others do, however; superior position in this case, as in many, results in less accessibility. It is rough-edged, cold, and deep, qualities that sometimes also come with being a superior person. And it is all wet, just like people who have superior attitudes.

Superior is also a typographic term. It is or isn’t (depending on whom you ask) a synonym for superscript. Even for those who maintain a distinction between the two terms, the difference is small: they use superior to refer specifically to superscripted minuscule letters in abbreviations, such as the th in 9th and the re in French Dre. So footnote numbers and symbols may or may not be superior. But those people who insist that it is incorrect to refer to them as superior certainly are superior – I leave it to you to decide whether by that I mean having superior knowledge or just a supercilious attitude.

Superior is also an astronomical term. A superior planet is a planet that is farther from the sun than the Earth is. Why? Is it that they are more rarefied, or have greater affinity to the empyrean? No, silly, it’s because they’re further up. Up and down really mean ‘away from the direction of gravitation’ and ‘towards the direction of gravitation’. In the solar system, the centre of gravity is the sun. We may think the sun is above us because we’re thinking in Earth-centric terms, but in solar system terms it is below us: it’s the big heavy.

Which is rather funny. If you wish to be superior, it helps to be lighter – and indeed I more greatly esteem people whose levity exceeds their gravity. But in the business world, the person at the top is the big heavy around whom all others revolve, and you don’t want to be seen as a lightweight. But to become a superior, you have to climb your way to the top, and that takes effort, which proves that you’re moving away from gravity.

And towards heaven, perhaps – if you are the mother superior or father superior of a convent or monastery, for instance. Except that the sun is in heaven, and the sun is really below us in the bigger picture. But other parts of the heavens are farther away from the sun, but include suns of their own, many of them much heavier than our sun. Every star up there is a sun, the absolute down in its own system. Meanwhile, the superior planets are towards the darkness, but in our usual thinking light is superior to darkness. And superior letters are light subordinates to the letter or numeral they are attached to: they report to it and it is in that sense superior to them.

The more you look at superior, the murkier and less pure the subject seems to become. The letters and the concepts dance around. It leaves a sour-ripe taste. Does it rise up or get mixed up? Prior use leads only to greater confusion.

Finally we must realize that it is all relative, and the way to superior intelligence is to keep everything in perspective – and to maintain a sense of levity.

3 responses to “superior

  1. Daniel E. Trujillo Medina.

    James: This post today made me think of how Venice was referred to back when Rome was her mortal enemy: The Most Serene Republic of Venice. Serenissima, in Italian; Serenísima in Spanish. The term surely embodies that aura of superiority Venice always commanded in her best days. It vanished, but perhaps it did not. Perhaps we still think of Venice as superior in some way. Just a thought.

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