Words in the News


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Liz Potter
Written by Liz Potter

A breaking news story on Friday was the announcement by London’s transport authority TfL that it did not intend to renew the licence to operate in the city of the ride-hailing app firm Uber. The ruling, which is subject to appeal, was the result of alleged breaches of safety regulations, and naturally caused consternation among the app’s 3.5 million users and 40,000 drivers in the capital. There was suspicion in some quarters that the ruling was the result of pressure from London’s black cab drivers, who have campaigned vigorously against the company’s operation in the city, though this was denied.

Uber is not just the name of the company behind the phenomenally successful app, of course. Uber- is a very productive prefix meaning ‘very’, ‘total’, or ‘complete’, found in combinations such as uber-cool, uber annoying, uber nerd and uberfan.  It is also used as a standalone adjective meaning ‘great’, ‘super’. And unsurprisingly, given the app’s astonishing popularity, it has become a common noun used to refer to a cab hailed by this method (as in “I’ll just get an uber”).

As is well known, uber comes from the German ‘über’, meaning ‘over’, and its use as a prefix can be traced back to the philosopher Friedrich Nieztsche, who used it in his description of the superior man of the future or Übermensch in his Also sprach Zarathustra (1883-1885).

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Liz Potter

Liz Potter

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