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This is a question which bugged me in my childhood. Being German, I recognized that most of the superheroes names were not translated at all (Superman, Batman) or were translated incompletely. Well, once I translated them, the reason was clear: In German "Batman" is either something which went horribly awry (like the "Fly") or it causes hysterical fits of laughter because it sounds utterly ridiculous (It's like wearing pink leather).

There are other names which are completely ok: Names itself (Thor, Elektro), names of animals (Panther, Scorpion), names of tools or characteristics (Man of Steel, The Claw, Avengers etc.). Only these -man/-woman endings sound...strange.

I know that people are now accustomed to the names of superheroes, but is this simply an oddity of languages or was there a time (especially during the creation) when people did find the names ridiculous and funny and satirized them ?

Just asking.

  • Was there ever a time? Sure has. – FuzzyBoots Mar 4 '15 at 19:03
  • @SeanDuggan How could I forget that ! Corrected the title. – Thorsten S. Mar 4 '15 at 19:06
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    Not sure why wearing pink leather is utterly ridiculous. Utter fabulous, I say... – Lexible Mar 4 '15 at 19:12
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    @Lexible What do you have in mind concerning...overpowering...criminals...? – Thorsten S. Mar 4 '15 at 19:19
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    @O.R.Mapper This is really strange that a sentence which seems to brilliantly clear to oneself is a source of confusion to others. I was also a bit perplexed ("What does he mean with: He has no idea what I am trying to say"). Thanks for clearing up the confusion, I think it is now clear what I was trying to say. – Thorsten S. Nov 12 '16 at 19:49
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Possibly never to the extent you would expect. Yes they are goofy but...

Prior to Superman most proto-superheroes either had over-the-top real names (Flash Gordon, Doc Savage) or descriptive "The" names (The Shadow, The Phantom).

Superman was the first -man superhero and his name is derived from an existing concept/word (with German origins, no less) rather than just being a goofy combination of Super and Man. At the time this would have been no different to the names you find acceptable.

Following Superman it just became a naming convention based on his popularity.

That said, it can be completely absurd (check out the Legion of Superheroes roster some time) and superhero naming has been constantly satirized (even within the comics themselves, see Squirrel Girl). Although I think that's often due to the nature of their powers and inspiration than the name itself.

  • Lost in translation: If correct, it is indeed very strange that Superman was inspired by the "Übermensch" because the original meaning in German are innate abilities to persevere against opposition and stand out of the crowd, not athletic powers (It was Nietzsche's literary fantasy fulfillment...if I were all-powerful, everyone would bent to my will). Captain America would have been an example of this trope; while the serum gives him human peak athletic powers, more important is his good heart and the conviction to fight for his beliefs openly (no second identity). – Thorsten S. Mar 31 '15 at 16:26
  • @ThorstenS., Superman has both. He has innate physical advantages. And he has a strong moral/ethical code ("Truth, Justice, and the American Way") to guide him. Whether that code is innate or due to his upbringing by hardworking middle-American farm folks, I'm not sure. – The Photon Mar 31 '15 at 16:30
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    @Thorsten: Worth keeping in mind that Superman was created by two Jewish teenagers in the early 1930s as a reaction to what was happening in Europe and as such subverting the term was likely entirely intentional. He was actually originally concieved of as a villain who was all powerful and could bend everyone to his will (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superman#Creation_and_conception)! – Ashandes Mar 31 '15 at 16:54
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Ashandes's answer covers the most important points, but I wanted to add one more consideration:

Most names like that are descriptions.

There are a few superhero names, like "Wonder Woman", which basically mean nothing but "she's awesome!" But for the most part, the -man or -woman names tend to be descriptive in nature: the man with spider-powers is a Spider-Man and the guy with water-powers is an Aqua-man, very much like the very strong and tough man is the Man of Steel, which you mentioned. Even more common, such names are added to associate with a previous character: "Supergirl" is the female cousin of "Superman," and "Kid Flash" is the kid-sidekick of "The Flash." Again, these aren't just fancy nicknames, they are descriptors meant to illustrate a relevant connection.

A famous example of this in recent history was in Batman Begins: while being hunted by the new bat-themed vigilante, Scarecrow murmurs to his henchmen, "it's the bat...man." You can hear the pause or hyphenation in his voice (a great touch by the actor or director), because Batman's name isn't known yet. Scarecrow is almost coining the name in that moment, or even simply describing this person without giving him a name at all. In that situation it wasn't goofy to describe him that way, it was the most logical descriptor available.

It's kind of silly when you line up a bunch of these characters all together, but really, it's almost more normal to refer to someone associated with spiders as "that spider-man" than a more abstract name like "The Shadow." Sure, Green Lantern uses a lantern (although not nearly as often as he uses his ring), but he is not himself a lantern.

But that guy over there, dressed up as a bat? He's clearly a Bat-man.

  • But what about that guy over there, who actually looks like some sort of bat-human hybrid? Oh, well. I guess we'll just call him Man-Bat. – KSmarts Mar 31 '15 at 17:19
  • @KSmarts True, Man-Bat is all kinds of silly. But then, if I lived in a town that already had a bat-shaped man called Batman, and I suddenly ran into a man-shaped bat, I don't know that I could come up with a more accurate description... – Nerrolken Mar 31 '15 at 17:21
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    Agree with all this, and it's especially true for Batman who was introduced as "The Batman" in the comics and is still referred to with the "the" a fair bit. One thing I found interesting while doing some Superman fact checking is that he wasn't introduced as "The Superman" in the comics, even though the name was kinda descriptive. Which again might be to do with the fact that it already existed as a term. – Ashandes Mar 31 '15 at 17:33
  • @Ashandes That is interesting. I don't know if it was intentional, but in a way, it fits their characters: "The Batman" is a more formal, austere title for a more intense and unapproachable character, while "Superman" sounds much more friendly and welcoming than "The Superman," which sounds imperious and threatening. – Nerrolken Mar 31 '15 at 17:48
  • Of course, there is also that version of the character that is referred to as "The Goddamn Batman"... – KSmarts Mar 31 '15 at 18:58

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