Ultimate and Penultimate

By Maeve Maddox

A DWT reader noticed this example of the use of penultimate as if it meant ultimate or best:

…a commentator at a tv broadcast of a national dog show commented on a particular dog (a close contender for best in show) being the penultimate dog of its breed group.

Penultimate means “next to last.” The only way the dog referred to could be the “penultimate dog of its breed group” would be if it were one of two. Even then, the speaker would have to have some way of knowing which dog would be the last to die.

Here are two more examples of writers using penultimate as if it meant ultimate:

And since it is, after all, the penultimate in men’s formal wear, screwing up the tux is also the penultimate faux pas. –Ezine article
With many benefits available to us in regards to protein, we should consider whey protein isolate as the penultimate source of protein. –nutrition blog

That the writer of the second example believes penultimate means something like “the most important” is further illustrated in the article I’m quoting from: “Whey is perhaps the healthiest form of protein that is available to our bodies.” (Yes, “in regards” is nonstandard.)

I suspect that the extra syllable in penultimate leads some speakers to believe it must mean “more than ultimate,” the way the prefixes super- and extra- elevate the base words in superman and extraordinary.

It doesn’t help that various manufacturers use the word penultimate to name their games, applications, and other products.

Ultimate, from Latin ultimus, “last, final,” means “lying beyond all others.”

The Roman poet Virgil coined the expression “Ultima Thule” to mean a far-off land or an unattainable goal. Medieval mapmakers applied the term to unexplored northern lands that lay beyond the borders of the world they knew.

The prefix pene- means “nearly, almost, all but.” It occurs in a few obsolete English words, like pene-lake, “an expanse of water almost surrounded by land.” Like pene-, the pen- in penultimate is from Latin paene, “almost.” A peninsula is “almost an island.” The penultimate event or item in a series is “almost the last.

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10 Responses to “Ultimate and Penultimate”

  • Stephanie

    Sounds like more people need to read Lemony Snicket.

  • venqax

    I don’t think I’ll ever understand why people insist on using words they don’t know the meaning of. It’s not like it’s hard now to find out the meaning of something. I can hypothesize 3 ways:

    1. They really think most multi-syllabic words are interchangeable and a word like “penultimate” doesn’t have any specific meaning other than the “ultimate” part that they ‘re familiar with. This includes the assumption that any word means what it kinda-seems-like it means: noisome means noisy or loud, crapulent means containing crap, Nimrod means stupid.

    2. They are simply too lazy to look up a word they don’t know the meaning of, and think that whoever is hearing or reading them will not know the difference and/ or will also be too lazy to look up the difference. The question here then is why use the word at all if it’s not going to penetrate the target. Maybe the ironic thought is that an inappropriate word wrongly tossed in makes them sound smart?

    3. They suffer from the inflated self-confidence disease imparted by modern schooling and really think they do know the meaning of the word precisely because they think they know it. Them thinking it makes it so because they don’t think wrong things. Everybody’s told them so. If that circular logic somehow fails, then they can fall back on feelings: The word actually means whatever it is you want it to mean. Don’t judge me. It’s MY vocabulary, not yours.

  • Julie Link

    Venqax, giving the speaker or writer the benefit of the doubt, my bet is on number one: users guess at a meaning based on how the word sounds. Reason 3 is possible, given the movement of our society toward the refusal to recognize any truth as absolute, but I hadn’t applied the arrogant attitude you suggest to vocabulary. To save the language is a daunting task, but we must soldier on. 🙂

  • Keaton

    Great article. I myself was not familiar with the exact meaning of the word “penultimate,” but I certainly am now.
    Improper word usage isn’t the only thing wrong with that Ezine article, though. The men’s tuxedo is not formal wear, strictly speaking. It is semi-formal. Formal wear is white tie, not black tie.

  • venqax

    Julie Link: You may be right, but think about what that means. The examples are not from casual speech overheard in a bar. They are from online “publications” kinda-sorta, from “‘zine” and blog people and TV commentators who one assumes want to be taken seriously. Is there any other “profession” where there would be such a don’t-give-a-crap attitude about using the correct tools for the job? Let’s hope surgeons don’t know their instrument trays just as well as wannabe writers and speakers know their words.

  • venqax

    @Keaton: Off topic completely, but your comment about formal wear is interesting. I don’t know if you are American, obviousy, but the relevance for that is that I was once told by an American diplomat that for Americans, specifically, and American events tuxedo was formal wear and that we “don’t do” white tie. By don’t do I assume he meant don’t recognize it in official protocal, not that Americans were somehow prohibited from it. This was back when there was still a Soviet Union and he further said the Soviets don’t even do tuxedo (too capitalist, I guess) and do nothing more than business suit.

    I have no idea about the accuracy of this at all; just wondering. I know the formal protocol of the US State Dept doesn’t govern the world of fashion in general, and I don’t even know if this info is correct. The source was a diplomatic staffer, not an ambassador or Personage of Note, but I figured he would no more than the average person about such things.

  • John L.

    Maeve ~ informative as always, but I admit to having a small problem with your thought expressed here:

    “The only way the dog referred to could be the “penultimate dog of its breed group” would be if it were one of two. Even then, the speaker would have to have some way of knowing which dog would be the last to die.”

    This may be a minor point, or quite possibly I’m misreading your comment entirely, but I think you are confusing breed group in the context of a dog show (specifically conformation) with a group of similar-type dogs.

    Admittedly this makes no sense in the real world, but your first sentence – to be consistent with the correct use of the word in question – would end with “would be if it were judged the second to last dog in the group.” We don’t know how many dogs are in the group but assuredly there are more than two.

    The following sentence within the context of judging dogs within a defined group, say, the working group, doesn’t require the predictable demise of any given dog.

    My conclusion then is that either I have totally embarrassed myself, or your knowledge of language far exceeds your familiarity with the sport of showing dogs in conformation. If it is the former I can assure you that I will not be the penultimate person to proffer profuse apologies for my lack of reading comprehension.

  • Nana

    @venqax – GW Bush’s and Ford’s state dinners with the Queen, and Kennedy’s with Houphouet-Boigny (of the Republic of Ivory Coast) were white tie and tails; however, that may have had more to do with their guests than with American protocol. Most state dinner pictures show black ties and tuxes, so your information may be correct.

    @John L. – I also read and re-read that same bit you mentioned.

    @Maeve – I appreciate the need to differentiate between ‘ultimate’ and ‘penultimate’, and agree that penultimate is often misused. But I think your explanation for the dog show example missed the mark. You appear to have applied extra context than that which was presumably intended by the speaker.

    Consider a random line of people, who work a variety of jobs, walking through a doorway: fireman 1, policeman 1, soldier 1, policeman 2, soldier 2, bus driver, policeman 3, fireman 2. Policeman 2 would be the penultimate of his occupation. It does not indicate an attempted determination of who will be the next-to-last to die, or that there are no other policemen (or women) on earth than him plus one other. He was the next-to-last of his occupation showcased *in that line*.

    It indicates placement order, with a certain distinction, in a specific context.

  • Maeve Maddox

    I agree with all who have remarked and will remark on the bit about the penultimate dog. It’s one of my less successful efforts at analogy.

  • Graylocke

    Somewhat relevantly, I was recently introduced to the concept of a “Super Final” in sport. Apparently this happens after a “Final” which isn’t. Confusingly, this means that a final can be penultimate, even if it makes no sense.

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