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According to OED,

  • hyper-:

    over, beyond, over much, above measure

  • ultra-:

    beyond

  • super-:

    over, above, higher than

They all have the meaning "higher than", but what is the order of them? That is, which one is the highest? Which one is modest higher? And which one is middle higher?

Update: Thank you all.

I have searched by myself and spotted that, according to Taxonomy, hyperfamily is larger than superfamily. Moreover, as Kris, Mitch and Robusto pointed out, hyper is higher than super in many other usage such as hypersonic/supersonic and hypermarket/supermarket. In addition super is higher than ultra in Audiology. So it seems

ultra < super < hyper

in common usage. On the other hand, in taxonomic ranks of biological classification, the rank hypoorder is larger than suborder, which is larger than infraorder. So a conclusion seems can be made as infra < sub < hypo.

Overall, does it seem the order is

infra < sub < hypo < ultra < super < hyper

in most usages?

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1  
In American English, 'ultra-' feels more extreme than 'super-' (by association with it's usage in gasoline varieties), and 'hyper-' is just of another kind altogether and so is not comparable (i.e. there is 'hyperactive' but no 'superactive', there is 'supermarket' but no 'hypermarket'). –  Mitch Oct 18 '12 at 13:18
    
Super is by far the most common usage, so it stands to reason it is the most overused and therefore the least "beyond"; hyper is what most people turn to when super feels too much like faint praise; and ultra is reserved for those special occasions where there is nothing beyond the thing described (the ne plus ultra, if you will). –  Robusto Oct 18 '12 at 13:32
    
@Mitch: But if you wanted to convey the idea of something beyond the ordinariness of a supermarket, you might very well try the confection hypermarket. –  Robusto Oct 18 '12 at 13:43
    
@Robusto: I agree in principle, but not about what people actually do. I just don't hear people using 'hyper-' as 'even moreso than super-'. –  Mitch Oct 18 '12 at 13:48
2  
You really can never have a definitive ordering for things like this; it's just a set of words that different speakers will at different times perceive differently. It isn't like you're inflecting things into comparative and superlative degrees. I don't think it is possible to have a definitive ordering that all speakers agree on. –  tchrist Oct 18 '12 at 14:16
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closed as not constructive by MετάEd, FumbleFingers, tchrist, Mark Beadles, Rory Alsop Oct 18 '12 at 15:49

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5 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted

These are not English words, but Greek (hyper) and Latin (super, ultra) prepositions.

Hyper and super mean exactly the same thing, 'above' -- they're cognates, in fact; Greek initial S went to H, and Y was the Greek letter corresponding to Latin V (or U). Greek is of course more prestigious than Latin, but it's not bigger.

Ultra, on the other hand, means 'beyond', as in ultraviolet or ultra vires 'beyond (the powers of) man'.

So I guess ultra would be the ultimate (same root, btw), at least for English speakers who've studied Latin and Greek.

All of them.

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However, they very much English prefixes -- hence the issue on hand. –  Kris Oct 19 '12 at 4:34
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John Lawler is right that they mean mostly the same thing. But in terms of actual usage, hyper- is often used when something more than super- is needed. For example, an aircraft that flies faster than the speed of sound is called supersonic. But there arose a need to distinguish between mere supersonic speed and something far beyond that. So hypersonic was next in line. From Wikipedia's article on hypersonic speed:

In aerodynamics, a hypersonic speed is one that is highly supersonic (even though the origin of the words is the same—"super" is just the Latin version of the Greek "hyper"). Since the 1970s, the term has generally been assumed to refer to speeds of Mach 5 and above.

This pattern repeats often in engineering and scientific terminology.

Hyper- is also used when super-, due to its extreme overuse, doesn't feel technical or academic enough. Saying that someone exhibits "super-sensitivity" may mean the same thing as exhibiting "hyper-sensitivity," but the latter term is used by psychologists. (Cf. "hyper-vigilance" and other psych terms).

Additionally, where a word using super- already has a distinct and different meaning, hyper- is the go-to substitute. Supercritical already has an established meaning in science, so hypercritical is used to describe someone who is scolding and sarcastic all the time.

I personally would reserve ultra- as the ultimate superlative (if you will allow the pun).

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Is Hyperman stronger than Superman? Or did he just drink more coffee? –  bib Oct 18 '12 at 14:59
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Could be general reference. The prefixes have definite meanings in Aerodynamics, Audiology and other fields. However, note that the definitions may not apply across domains -- are not hard and fast in general English, and certainly not in non-technical prose.

Electromagnetic Spectrum (Wikipedia)

EHF= Extremely high frequency
SHF= Super high frequency
UHF= Ultra high frequency

super, hyper and ultra
"in some cases ... ultra was named first, and then they found higher frequencies, so super was attached after the ultra. --Ludwigs2" :)

Supersonic and hypersonic in Aerodynamics occur in that order. Supersonic is speed above the speed of sound; hypersonic five times or more than the speed of sound.

Ultrasonic is defined as being beyond human audio range (threshold of hearing), not really related to the other two terms.

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Right, "ultrasonic" refers to high frequency while "supersonic" and "hypersonic" refer to high linear speed. –  minopret Oct 18 '12 at 15:24
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The terms used for size, especially in promotional materials do not follow strict logical or grammatical rules. While there may be subtle arguments as to which term truly conveys the most of something or a logical order, these are largely ignored in practice.

Consider the sizes of olives. This is part the sequence for International grading by size:

  • Superior
  • Large
  • Extra Large
  • Jumbo
  • Extra Jumbo
  • Giants
  • Colossal
  • Super Colossal
  • Mammoth
  • Super Mammoth

This is part of the list for American grading

  • Large
  • Extra Large
  • Mammoth
  • Giant
  • Jumbo
  • Colossal
  • Super Colossal

Notice that in the US, Colossal is larger than Mammoth, but the orders are reversed in International standards. In no case is the actual size of olives in one system equivalent in size in the other. Note that these are accepted standards recognized by governments, not just commercial hype.

Sometimes Super is bigger/faster/brighter/tighter than Ultra. Sometimes it's not.

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What in the world ever happened to olives of small, medium, and regular size? –  tchrist Oct 18 '12 at 14:56
    
@tchrist For a change, we Americans actually still use some real terms for the smaller sizes - sub-petite, petite, midget, small (but also called select or standard), medium. The International standard uses bullets, fine, brilliant and superior. Now lets check Starbucks where the smallest size is called tall. –  bib Oct 18 '12 at 15:05
    
I see. Here it gives the Californian rankings as Sub-petite, Petite, Small, Medium, Large, Extra Large, Jumbo, Colossal, and Super Colossal, and notes that Europe uses the same words differently. –  tchrist Oct 18 '12 at 15:12
    
@tchrist That is the source my lists came from. Note that even with in the US there are different labels. –  bib Oct 18 '12 at 18:21
    
@bib the smallest size at Starbucks is short (8oz). –  cornbread ninja 麵包忍者 Oct 19 '12 at 15:22
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There is no fixed ordering of the three. If you have a need to specify levels of "superness" and you want to use these words, you could put them in any order you like and there would be no objective grounds to say you were wrong.

I'm reminded of the time I was buying laundry detergent and I found that one brand came in three sizes: "large", "family size", and "economy size". Which of those do you suppose was the biggest? The labels were useless. (BTW, "large" was actually the smallest size.)

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