A product or technology’s name should be informative and catchy. A revolutionary transportation company’s name should be futuristic and evocative. Elon Musk’s proposed and in-development Hyperloop conjures up just what it needs to conjure. But why hyper? Why not Superloop? When did the one brand-friendly, futuristic prefix replace the other?
Product names — neologisms, typically — need to be eye-catching, punchy, and descriptive. They must not lean toward differentiation while also referencing something people understanding. This is specifically true of groundbreaking technologies. “Facebook,” for instance, is a portmanteau that seems to imply a bound volume of human features, which is so obviously illegal and gross that a potential user must conclude this is something altogether new. It also makes the internet sound more tactile, which made sense as a naming strategy back in the early aughts. In 2016, consumers are more fond of names that suggest rapidity: Snapchat and Instagram. But those are social networks. That need to communicate speed is much more important in the transportation sector.
These days, cars are looking cooler and cooler and going faster and faster. But manufacturers seem to be running out of superlatives. Most companies now toss some numbers and letters together and call it a day (F-450, i3, S8, etcetera). This is largely because makes and models have proliferated in the auto industry. That’s not really true in the train game, which is why it mattered so much when it came time for Elon Musk to assign a name to his pipe dream, a transportation system that, if ever realized, could get people from San Francisco to Los Angeles in half an hour.
If built, the Hyperloop would average around 600 mph — almost double the current record for high-speed trains — and be a, well, loop. So it makes sense that he’d want to use “loop” and something to suggest speed. Would super have worked? Yes, actually. “Superloop” has a pretty nice ring to it and it would have been familiar to people: We have superbikes, supersizes. Superdelegates, superintendents, superheroes. But it would have also been an oddly antiquated choice because of how we’ve come to understand disruptive technologies. K-Mart superstores are certainly disruptive, but not in the ways favored by Silicon Valley’s digital populists.
The standard meaning of super isn’t unbecoming, but it does harken back to an era when power was prized. Super was a very common corporate prefix in the eighties and nineties when bigger and more powerful were computing innovations. “Super-“ implies above and beyond. It also has authoritative connotations. Being a superpower is a whole ordeal.
The alternative, hyper-, is comparatively playful and childlike. Like super- (but from Greek rather than Latin), hyper- means over, beyond, or above whatever it modifies. But hyper is not just a prefix: it’s also a truncated adjective, from the nearly defunct “hyperactive.” As a result, it carries more pleasant connotations: energy, speed, tirelessness. There are no hyperdelegates — at least not yet and no hypersized meals. The prefix is untarnished. It may be a parent’s nightmare, but it’s a commuter’s dream.
Hyper- has connotations that go beyond playfulness, though. Hyper- is right at home in science fiction, which Musk loves: Hyperdrive is what one uses to travel in hyperspace. And hypersonic is way, way, better than supersonic: the former refers to speeds greater than Mach 5, whereas the latter only refers to speeds greater than Mach 1. There’s also a tech angle, too, what with hyperlink. Healthy, marketable connotations abound.
That doesn’t mean super- can’t have its moment in the limelight. Tesla Motors, Musk’s electric vehicle company, advertises its Superchargers, which juice up electric car batteries at speed. Even Musk knows that variety is important: He can’t go around prefixing each one of his products with hyper without making them all sound banal.
As technology continues to progress, and transportation gets us farther, faster, we’re going to need new prefixes. Few remain. There’s ultra- and uber-, but the “” sound is tough and intelligence agencies have claimed the former (British wartime signaling, elaborate plans to drug soldiers) and a massively unpopular/popular startup has, along with Nietzsche, claimed the latter. One could imagine playing around with “warp,” but Musk, nerd that he is, surely won’t adopt that word until he’s got a working EmDrive.