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When detailing the definition of these prefixes, I'm usually faced with a deadlock as to which would fit the proper usage. Though, in general, I'd still like to understand each prefix's nuance to each other — to their absoluteness — if there is any, or if they're simply synonymous with one another. For the most part, they seem to be entirely identical.

Dictionary.com (one link given) has:

  • meta-: a prefix appearing in loanwords from Greek, with the meanings “after,” “along with,” “beyond,” “among,” “behind,” and productive in English on the Greek model.";
  • hyper-: a prefix appearing in loanwords from Greek, where it meant “over,” usually implying excess or exaggeration
  • super-: a prefix occurring originally in loanwords from Latin, with the basic meaning “above, beyond.” Words formed with super- have the following general senses: to place or be placed above or over
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    What do their dictionary entries suggest the similarities or differences are? That would help provide a basis for further discussing usage. Sep 1, 2020 at 13:02
  • "meta- a prefix appearing in loanwords from Greek, with the meanings “after,” “along with,” “beyond,” “among,” “behind,” and productive in English on the Greek model."; "hyper- a prefix appearing in loanwords from Greek, where it meant “over,” usually implying excess or exaggeration."; "super- a prefix occurring originally in loanwords from Latin, with the basic meaning “above, beyond.” Words formed with super- have the following general senses: “to place or be placed above or over." Mind the poor formatting.
    – Marquise
    Sep 1, 2020 at 13:07
  • There is a lot more information you've left out ... examples, for instance. You need to provide at least one candidate definition, what you wish to use the word to describe. Sep 1, 2020 at 13:56
  • I think you are mixing up supra and super.
    – Lambie
    Dec 27, 2023 at 17:55

3 Answers 3

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To add to the answers based on meaning and etymology, let us also look at usage. On a quick look through the Mathematica dictionary of more than 92000 words, I find no single part of a word that is prefixed by all three prefixes.

meta and hyper are only shared by the part bolic in metabolic and hyperbolic.

super and hyper are only shared by the part elliptic, in superelliptic/hyperelliptic, superfine/hyperfine, supermarket/hypermarket and supersonic/hypersonic.

meta and super are not shared by any single part.

To find so few shared uses suggests that the prefixes are certainly not synonymous. If you look up the meanings of the above pairs, you will confirm other answers that the prefixes have different meanings.

To reply to comment, I add that prefixes are certainly not always synonymous. In biology and medicine I offer the obvious examples of metamorphosis and metastasis. These often-used concepts cannot be described by using the other two prefixes. In mathematics, hyperelliptic and superelliptic functions have different forms. In physics, hyperfine (timings, for example) differ from superfine (spectral lines). In flight, the difference between supersonic (above the speed of sound) and hypersonic (several times the speed of sound) is less distinct, as in the example of super/hypermarkets.

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  • If one defines 'synonymous' as [of words, phrases etc] 'interchangeable in all contexts' the word becomes virtually useless. On ELU, 'interchangeable in certain sentences with no or insignificant change in meaning' has been adopted I think by most. So the prefixes are certainly synonymous, though as you point out, rarely interchangeable in many accepted words. OP's belated linked reference does speak of 'productivity', another term whose precise definition is debated. // The only comparisons I can see is that hypermarkets are advertised as being even bigger than supermarkets, etc. Sep 1, 2020 at 14:42
  • @ Edwin I regret disagreeing but have explained my reason by editing my answer. In particular circumstances the prefixes may indeed be synonymous but it is flawed reasoning to progress from that accepted truth to inference of a general statement that they are "certainly" (=always?) synonymous.
    – Anton
    Sep 1, 2020 at 17:23
  • @Anton being synonymous does not mean that they are exactly the same, just that they are very close. Mild nuances may allow no perceptible difference under context, or it may mean they can never interchange even though they give the same feeling.
    – Mitch
    Sep 1, 2020 at 18:31
  • In the first instance, words display synonymity. Thus rum and odd are synonyms, and would appear in most synonym lists for say 'strange'. But you can't have odd and Coke, or rum integers. But 'rum' and 'odd' are still synonyms. Sep 1, 2020 at 18:41
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While super- and hyper- have approximately the same meanings, they are not interchangeable, in that for a particular X, it will be either superX or hyperX that gets established, and the other one is never seen. There is usually no deep reason why one rather than the other gets established, and if one is in the position of coining a new term of that kind, one is generally free to choose either superX or hyperX. In some contexts, both may be used as technical terms with different meanings, but in such cases their different meanings have to be explicitly stipulated; it won't be possible to deduce them from the meanings of the prefixes themselves.

One limitation on superX, though, is that it is normally not used in the cases in which exceeding the standard limits of X is undesirable. HyperX, on the other hand, may be used in such cases as well, which is why it often appears in medical contexts, in the names of abnormal conditions.

Unlike super- and hyper-, which have a long history as components of everyday English, meta- is a prefix that has its proper use only in relatively specialised vocabularies. (It now seems to have started to percolate into colloquial English, but its meaning in such contexts is unsettled.) Somebody who is not familiar with the actual use of meta-, but is just given its short dictionary definition of the sort that is quoted by the OP, may be under an impression that its meaning is similar to that of super- and hyper-, but the similarity of the definitions is superficial and misleading. MetaX is something that is about X; that is above X only in a highly metaphorical sense of above. Metadata, for example, are data that are about other data, and that puts them above these other data, but in a much more metaphorical sense, than the sense in which supersonic speeds are above the speed of sound.

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The prefixes 'super-' and 'hyper-' are mostly synonymous. They are both used as prefixes to mean in general something bigger and better. Super is much more common than hyper.

They are very common in technical language, especially in medicine. There the nuanced difference is that 'super-' is usually used more literally as 'above', and 'hyper' more metaphorically as 'more' and can imply a grade of size that is more than what you get from 'super-'. Also, 'super-' is from Latin and 'hyper-' from Greek, so technical neologisms tend to match the same source language as the following root.

'Meta-' on the other hand is used differently. It's not used for 'more' or 'above' but instead for 'across' or 'over'.

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    'Hyper' can be a hyped version of 'super' as in supersonic/hypersonic; supermarket/hypermarket. OTTers such as advertisers don't recognise ungradeables. Sep 1, 2020 at 15:45
  • Well, a metalinguistic comment is above the linguistics, I'd have thought.
    – Lambie
    Dec 27, 2023 at 17:56

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