Q&A: Defining penultimate

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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.

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