An Ultimatum IS “Final”

By Maeve Maddox

The noun ultimatum is one of those words that needs no modifiers.

ultimatum: In diplomacy, the final terms presented by one power (or group of powers) to another, the rejection of which may lead to the severing of diplomatic relations, and eventually to a declaration of war. –OED

For ordinary people (i.e., non-diplomats), the word means

a final condition or stipulation; one’s last word on a matter.

So why do so many writers insist on modifying this strong noun with the adjective “final”?

Burger King gives final ultimatum to Aguilar

Scott issues the Hood a final ultimatum; stop or be shot at.

JEDDAH, November 23: Al-Ahly of Jeddah have officially issued a final ultimatum to manager Argentinian Edgardo Bauza…

After a string of wrists slaps and threats, toxin-lovin’ Babyshambles rocker Pete Doherty has been issued a final ultimatum from a London Judge: “If he does not show the motivation in four weeks, it will be prison…

Either an ultimatum is ultimate or it isn’t. If a woman’s ultimatum to her boyfriend is, “Sober up or lose me,” then she can’t take him back if he fails to sober up. If she does, then she hasn’t issued an ultimatum. At most, she’s made an empty threat.

“Final ultimatum” makes as much sense as “very unique.”

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5 Responses to “An Ultimatum IS “Final””

  • Precise Edit

    I think you have nailed the reason for “final ultimatum.” Many ultimatums (ultimata?) are, in fact, empty threats.

  • Steve McIntosh

    I disagree actually. The reason is that the consequence (should the demand not be met) can escalate. It would be an ultimatum to say to your wife (let’s not be sexist!) “stop beating me or I’m going to the cops”, but that wouldn’t preclude later saying “stop beating me or I’m leaving you”. A “final ultimatum” therefore implies that you have reached the final level of consequence. So, in that context, I think it’s acceptable. However, I agree that the phrase is commonly misused.

  • T. Vilaça

    Hi Precise Edit,

    I have to declare my support to Maddox based on the etymology
    itself. I don’t know for sure where did the word come from ( it sounds definetly latin, though) but it’s quite obvious for any speaker of Portuguese, Spanish, Italian and other romance ( latin) languages that the term is related to ‘Último’/’Última’ (Portuguese) or ‘L’ultimo/a’ (Italian) which means literally ‘Last’, or ‘The Last’.

    It is always used – or at least should be – (in English and in these other languages) as ‘the last chance’, ‘the last warning’, ‘the final word’ or as in ‘either you do THIS, or THAT will happen (no other options)’. That’s it!

    The term ‘ultimatum’ carries the idea of ‘final’. An ultimatum is always final. No exceptions.

    Hence, saying ‘final ultimatum’ is redundant indeed.
    Maddox is absolutely right.

    Peace Y’all

  • Precise Edit

    My point exactly. I am aware of the redundancy of “final ultimatum.” However, the word “ultimatum” is often used but as often not the final statement, as Maeve points out, leading to an empty threat–perhaps because people don’t fully understand the finality of an ultimatum, so they give a string of so-called ultimatums, one of which, presumably, is the final ultimatum.

    This is not correct usage, obviously, but I can see how people might make this mistake. On the other hand, sometimes people don’t think carefully about the meaning of the words they are using.

  • mailav

    thanks for the information,very useful

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