Q&A: Defining penultimate

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we want the final word on penultimate…

Q: Hey, my friend let me try his new bluetooth headphones yesterday. He enthused that they offered “the penultimate listening experience”. This is wrong, yes?
A: Well, was he implying that it would be the second to last thing you ever heard?
Q: No he was not.
A: Then dust off the dunce hat – he is wrong.
Q: Is this something people actually get wrong a lot?
A: Yes. The word “penultimate” is misused a lot – typically mistaken as a better version of “ultimate”. Yet in fact, it has only one definition – as an adjective meaning “second to last/next to last”.
A: Whose kitchen rules?
Q: No, sorry. IKR means “I know, right?”
A: Ah yes, of course.
Q: So, why are some people using it wrong? Is there some twisty-turny origin story?
A: Not at all. “Penultimate” entered English in the late 1600s. And its lineage is extremely clear – stemming from the Latin “paene” (almost) + “ultimus” (last).
Q: That's more of a stick than a family tree.
A: Exactly. The confusion is probably because the adjective “ultimate” has two meanings. The first is the Latin one above – to mean “last”. However, arguably the more used definition is to mean “best” or “the most extreme of something”.
Q: Example?
A: “This is the ultimate performance of Les Misérables at this theatre, and the ultimate way to spend an evening.” Same word, two meanings – final and best.
Q: So normally in that example, most would replace the first “ultimate” with a word like “final” or “last”, right?
A: That's right. So especially in this era of superlatives, people gravitate to using the second, loftier “best” definition of ultimate.
Q: It could also be to do with the rise of Ultimate Fighting Championship. They're clearly not talking about it being the “last” – they're up to 206 UFCs and counting. They definitely mean “best”.
A: Fun fact, there are also 206 bones in the human body.
Q: And you can break how many of them competing in UFC?
A: Haha, no comment. So back to “penultimate” – we've established that most people see the word “ultimate” as meaning “best”. Some mistakenly think that by adding PEN in the front, it's actually adding something to the word.
Q: Like “the best of the best”?
A: That's right. But it's actually quite ironic – because we don't add, we take away. “Penultimate” means “the one before”.
Q: Are you sure you used “ironic” correctly?
A: Yes. Irony is when the actual meaning is the opposite of the intended meaning. #nailedit
Q: So to recap, “penultimate” ONLY ever means “second to last”?
A: That's right. And by the way, this mistaken identity is known as a “malapropism” – using an incorrect word in place of the actual one.
Q: What a ridiculous word “malapropism” is.
A: IKR? It's named after a character called Mrs Malaprop who always used the wrong words, featured in a 1775 play called The Rivals
Q: Hey, fun fact: 206 people just fell asleep.
A: Okay fine, well let's finish on THIS cool piece of trivia. Did you know that there is also a word for “third to last” – antepenultimate!
Q: I did not know that. That word was the most penultimate thing you said today.
A: Correct.

Do you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you'd like our Q&A to explore? Email it to us today!

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