It had all started innocuously enough during an interview with Vicki Vale. "Can you speak a little Kryptonian for us, Superman?" Superman had demurred, but she had insisted: "Come on, just one phrase, just one sentence. I'm certain it's a beautiful language."
"I wouldn't know what to say, Ms Vale."
"Oh, you know--just give us some words of wisdom, some statement you try to live your life by." She pushed the microphone in his face. "Come on, for your adoring fans?"
Superman cleared his throat, and his face went from slightly embarrassed to very serious. He looked gravely at the camera and intoned, "Zhao tiv shehd amel i doshan."
That was how it had begun.
Someone put the video on Youtube, and soon the only known bit of spoken Kryptonian in the universe had become something of a viral hit. When people asked for advice online, they were likely to get a link to Superman's solemn face gazing at them and saying "Zhao tiv shehd amel i doshan." No one knew how to write Kryptonian script, but a phonetic spelling started cropping up on macros, used in discussion threads as shorthand to tell people to behave, to be more heroic, to treat others better--no one knew exactly what it meant, but if Superman lived by the phrase, it was good enough for the rest of the planet, right?
When asked its meaning, Superman merely turned slightly pink and said it was an untranslatable but extremely profound concept. This only fuelled enthusiasm for the phrase, of course.
It became the slogan of the Superman Fan Club, used to open and close every meeting.
It was draped on banners that festooned Metropolis on holidays. There was talk of making it the official motto of the city.
Even in Gotham, you could spot it on t-shirts, find it tagged onto walls with spraycans.
Zhao tiv shehd amel i doshan. It was aspirational, inspirational. It meant everything to everyone.
It was the essence of humanity's hopes about itself.
: : :
Clark Kent fumbled to hit the remote button, cutting off the duet between Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber in mid-warble: "Zhao tiv shehd--" He sneaked a glance at Bruce Wayne's face, set in stony impassivity.
"If I had known, Bruce, I swear--"
Bruce raised his hands to cut off the apology with the air of someone who has heard it a hundred times. "What's done is done, Clark."
"I don't know what I was think--"
"--It's okay. We all make mistakes sometimes."
"If they really do make it the Metropolis motto, I don't know what I'll do. Oh Rao," Clark groaned, burying his face in his hands. "Just imagine the formal seal of the city, proudly emblazoned with 'The Man of Steel loves his Dark Knight.'"
"It will blow over, Clark," Bruce said. "Eventually people will get tired of it and it will die down like any other fad. We just need to let it run out its natural life span."
"Your coffee, Master Bruce," cut in Alfred's voice.
"Thank you, Alfred," said Bruce. "Besides, silly as it is," he continued, "There is something rather...reassuring about the constant repetition."
Clark looked up as Alfred handed Bruce a steaming mug. He caught a glimpse of lettering on the mug, partially concealed by Bruce's fingers, and his eyes narrowed.
"What?" Bruce said, covering up the revealed words (--amel i doshan) more completely. "They were on sale," he muttered.
Clark made a strangled noise. "On sale?"
Bruce nodded serenely and took another sip of coffee, the rim of the mug almost (but not quite) hiding his smile. "Bulk rate. All Wayne Enterprises employees got one as a holiday bonus this year."