Ultimate and Penultimate
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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