November 5, 2015

Weekly Language Usage Tips: penultimate

Posted in penultimate at 1:13 pm by dlseltzer

A reader writes:

I am baffled by penultimate. Can you clarify?

I can surely give it a try. Ultimate actually has lots of meanings: furthest, conclusive, maximum, final, total, highest, etcetera—they all have something in common, that is, they are unsurpassed; they cannot be improved upon; they are the greatest.

[NOTE: Thanks to dictionary.com for these definitions.]

WOW! If ultimate is the greatest, then penultimate must be the greatest greatest, even better than the greatest, the best of the greatest. Right? Well, surprisingly for some, and sadly for others, it does not. It means next to the greatest, the second best, one less than the ultimate, the next to the last.

So let’s try this. If lobster is the ultimate gourmet shellfish treat, then the penultimate shellfish might be crab or langostinos, not quite as wonderful as lobster which has no equal, but maybe the second most wonderful, pretty darn good.

[NOTE: I was going to make an analogy using cars, but I quickly realized that I was completely out of my element. I have no idea what the ultimate car might be. Then, looking at the bowl of leftover halloween candy on my coffee table, I was going to use that, but that is so subjective. Everyone has their own opinions. For the record, for me, maple sugar candy is the ultimate candy sweet, while Reese’s peanut butter cups are the penultimate candy—my second favorite.]

Does that clarify it? If ultimate is the the final or last, then penultimate is the next to last. If, in my dictionary, zymurgy, is the ultimate or final word (it is a branch of applied chemistry), then, zygote is the penultimate or next to last word (it is a cell formed by the union of two gametes).

One last note. Penultimate is commonly misspelled as pentultimate. Watch out for the ‘t.’ There is only one in penultimate.

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