How does one express the greatest degree of success? Multiple optimal words are available to choose from.
Several terms refer literally to mountaintops. Peak, perhaps an alteration of pike, meaning “a short point or spike,” refers figuratively to a high point one has reached among other achievements, just as a mountain peak is often one among many. Pinnacle derives from the Latin term pinna, meaning “battlement” or “wing”; the figurative sense can connote an unsteady height one reaches by sudden success. Summit, ultimately from the Latin term summus, meaning “highest” (and related to sum and summary), suggests the highest possible position; in addition, to summit, in mountain climbing, is to reach a mountain peak, and a summit is a meeting or conference involving government leaders.
The Greek term akme means point,” and acme has acquired the connotation of perfection. Apex, a Latin word for the tip of an ancient Roman priest’s cap, came by association to refer to mountaintops, similar-looking architectural features, and figurative high points. Climax, from the Greek word klimax, meaning “ladder,” denotes the high point in a series of events, whether in a work of fiction or in one’s lifetime. Culmination, from the Latin verb culminare, meaning “crown” (related to the Latin word from which column is derived), implies that one has achieved a high point as a result of a series of preceding accomplishments.
Zenith, like its antonym nadir, is from Arabic; the word it stems from means “road or path” and is an abbreviation of a phrase meaning “the way over the head.” Zenith is still used in an astronomical sense to refer to the highest point overhead, and figuratively, it describes a high point of achievement. Another term borrowed from astronomy is apogee, ultimately from the Greek term apogaios, meaning “far away from the earth”; it refers an orbiting object’s farthest distance from the object’s origin but also pertains terrestrially to the highest point reached.
A high point is also described as a capstone, from an architectural term for the highest stone in an arch. Other terms include crown, as used in adjectival form in the phrase “crowning achievement,” and the phrase “high-water mark,” a reference to the highest level a body of water reaches during high tide or a flood. One can also refer to the crest of one’s career or fame; crest derives from the Latin term crista and has the literal senses of a ridge or top, or a plume or tuft of feathers or hair.
Optimum, adopted directly from Latin, is a noun as well as an adjective, but it refers to the greatest degree attainable or most favorable conditions and does not apply, for example, to achievements.