Q: The latest Spider-Man movie made me realize that I’d been misspelling the superhero’s name as “Spiderman” (as I type this the red, wriggly, spell-check line tells me the non-hyphenated word is wrong). So why does “Spider-Man” have a hyphen?
A: Spider-Man’s name has a hyphen because Stan Lee, who created the comic character with Steve Ditko, apparently wanted to distinguish him from Superman.
In a Feb. 24, 2010, comment on Twitter, Lee wrote: “Spidey’s official name has a hyphen—‘Spider-Man.’ Know why? When I first dreamed him up I didn’t want anyone confusing him with Superman!”
However, Lee’s memory may have been playing tricks. His superhero’s name appeared as two words, “SPIDER MAN,” when it first showed up in 1962 on the cover of the final issue of Amazing Fantasy (a magazine previously known as Amazing Adult Fantasy).
And clarity may not have been the only reason for distinguishing Spider-Man from Superman. We’ve read that Lee, a former president of Marvel Comics, may have wanted to avoid infringing on the DC Comics trademarks for the unhyphenated Superman.
(“Stan Lee,” by the way, is the pen name of Stanley Martin Lieber.)
Interestingly, the word “spider-man” had been around (with and without a hyphen) before the Stan Lee character showed up.
The first published reference in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the Britannica Book of the Year (1955): “Spiderman, an erector of building structures.”
The OED’s entry for “spider-man” (Oxford uses a hyphen) defines the term as “one employed to work on high structures; a steeple-jack.”
We’ll end with a 1958 citation from the Radio Times, a British magazine that features broadcast program listings:
“These spider-men and steel-erectors work at great heights, often where there are no means of protection. They walk along girders at dizzy heights as though they were strolling along Piccadilly.”
And by the way, be skeptical of those red, wriggly lines. There are lots of words that spell-checkers don’t know!
Check out our books about the English language