Hindmost

By Maeve Maddox

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The useful adjective hindmost may be shifting into the territory of the unfamiliar, where words become vulnerable to a change in meaning.

The opposite of foremost (“most forward or advanced in position”), the word hindmost is closely associated with the collocation, “Devil take the hindmost.”

As an adjective, hindmost denotes a fixed position of being behind something. In the devil idiom, hindmost is nominalized to stand for people who cannot keep up, who cannot run fast enough to save themselves from an encroaching evil.

The full expression is “Every man for himself, and let the Devil take the hindmost.”

This saying embodies the philosophy that people in difficulty should be left to their fate. It’s frequently heard in discussions of governmental social safety nets, as in these headlines and book title:

Devil Take the Hindmost As Public Policy: The Social Security Edition
Devil Take the Hindmost: Reform Considerations for States
Devil Take the Hindmost? Private Health Insurance and the Rising Costs of American ‘Exceptionalism’
Devil Take the Hindmost: A History of Financial Speculation

As an adjective, hindmost continues to be used without confusion.

In the hindmost car are the travelers headed for Philadelphia.
Coconut crabs use their hindmost, smallest pair of legs to clean these breathing organs and to moisten them with water.
The two hindmost abdominal segments may be reduced or separated in the middle on the surface to form two plates lying next to each other.

Some writers, wishing to avoid the commission of a cliché, take small liberties with the nominalized use in the idiom, but even with the alterations, hindmost still clearly stands for a group of people:

A good workforce and ambitious innovation [are] related to good education, good healthcare and confidence that the devil will not take the hindmost.

The difficulty as I see it devolves into narrow interest groups that want to retain the status quo and screw the hindmost.

Good schemes will do more than funnel money from latecomers to early takers, allowing the foremost to prosper at the expense of the hindmost.

Some writers, however, are subjecting the nominalized hindmost to a shift in meaning.

In the two following examples, hindmost seems to mean something like “whatever is left over.”

He and members of Congress all protect their agendas, and the deficit takes the hindmost.

it was Congress that . . . cut taxes on the wealthy [who] bribed their way into getting tax cuts for their class and the rest take the hindmost.

The meaning of hindmost as used in this review of a production of Hamlet starring Jude Law is difficult to discern. I’m guessing that here, the meaning may also be “what’s left over.”

This predicates frantic nonstop action as flashy, frequently jocular and unsubtle as possible, and the devil, or the more sophisticated theatergoer, take the hindmost.

I think the This that starts the sentence refers to the fact that the production was aimed at a “neophyte audience” more interested in seeing Jude Law than they were in seeing a Shakespeare play. The assumption was that such an audience expected to see the murders handled sensationally. The “more sophisticated theatergoers,” on the other hand, were presumed to expect a traditional, not so flashy, version of the play. The latter viewers, therefore, must enjoy whatever aspects of the play that are left to enjoy.

Recap:
Hindmost as an adjective means “farthest back in position.”

Hindmost with an article is a noun that means “someone or something bringing up the rear.”

NOTE: The verb take in “the Devil take the hindmost” has the sense of “to seize, grasp, capture, catch.”

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