There are some words in English that just don’t sound like what they really mean. Like the word, “enervate,” which means “to exhaust,” but which sounds more like “energize”; fortunately, few people say, “Oooh, I’m enervated!” when they’re exhausted – more like, “I’m pooped!” so confusion is not exactly rampant.
The word, “penultimate,” on the other hand, is used more often – and a good portion of the time is used wrong. “Penultimate” is a Latin-based word whose meaning has stuck close to its roots and means nothing more than “second to last” in a series or sequence. For example, Spanish students are taught that words in that language are usually stressed on the penúltima,” syllable “as in “sombRERo,” or “tequILa.” Law students know that their penultimate year is their last chance to beef up their academic resumes before their final year places them in the real world.
Etymologically, the word comes from “paen,” meaning “almost,” and “ulimate” meaning “last” or “final.” In English, however, “penultimate” sounds like it should mean something like, “better than the best:”: When we say something is, “the ultimate,” it means that it’s the greatest; the Numero Uno; something close to divine – so saying something is the PENultimate, we (wrongly) reason, sounds like that particular something is even one little divine notch higher – the exclamation point on top of the icing on the cake, so to speak.
The funny thing about “penultimate” is that it is a sort of fancy-sounding Latin word not normally used in everyday speech, and the person using it is often striving for some more graceful turn of phrase. So it is not misused by your average Joe, but rather by those supposedly well-educated ones. Thus, the remaining portion of literate ones who actually know what “penultimate” means feel just a tad (or more) smug for catching the mistake.
I was reminded of this the other day while walking on the Upper East Side in front of two nattily dressed women, who were chatting away when I overheard one of them say to the other, “I mean, would you go to a concert run by people who don’t know what ‘penultimate’ means?” (The Language Lady antennae went straight up!)
Turns out, the San Francisco Symphony had used “penultimate” improperly in a recent program description of a certain Mozart symphony. With a little googling, I was later able to find the offending usage:
“All the otherworldly ability that Mozart possessed was brought to bear in the Jupiter Symphony, the final—and perhaps penultimate—symphony he produced.”
What the program meant, of course, was that Mozart’s final symphony was perhaps the “best of the best.” But given the actual definition of “penultimate,” the program unwittingly stated that Mozart’s final symphony was his second to last.
Personally, I feel two ways about this one word. Naturally, I applaud those who use words in the correct, standard usage. A British airline industry publication sticks with the standard definition with the headline, “Carlisle (Airport) clears penultimate expansion hurdle;” the text explains that though development plans for the airport were endorsed, the “final decision” was expected later. (Leave it to the verbal-savvy Brits to do it right.)
Cheers also to a Portland, OR high school history teacher named “Mr. Carlisle;” his blog is dotted with “penultimate” titles, such as “Dec 16 - The Penultimate Day Before Break!”; “The Penultimate Weekend!” and “The Penultimate Week of School!!” Based on the calendar of exams he gives on the latter, Mr. Carlisle is clearly trying to get his students to remember that “penultimate” means “next to last” – not “final” and not “better than best.” (Hurray for American public high school!)
Even a recent headline of the online tabloid, Examiner.com got it right: “Bob Dylan and Leon Russell – The Penultimate Show at Indiana’s Roberts Stadium,” with the first line stating that the two still-at-it rock stars played one of the stadium’s last concerts there that evening.
But what I don’t like about the word itself is that it sounds so fancy but doesn’t mean anything fancy at all. It’s like putting on airs for a pair of muddy sneakers. If we refer to a “penultimate” performance, it would be more uplifting for readers if the word actually meant his performance was the very-very last word in excellence, the crème of all his crème-iest performances – rather than just his next to last.
Misusing “penultimate” is understandable – maybe even desirable – because we could use a word to break through the crowd of “ultimate” spas, movie experiences, designer blue jeans, or even trendy cupcakes. How do we convey some breakaway experience that tops all others?
Native speakers of English tend to avoid the multi-syllabic Latinate words when shorter Anglo-Saxon ones will do: Why say “quotidian” when you can say, “daily”; “reflect” when you can simply “think”? Latin-rooted words usually give a deeper and a certain elevated meaning – like “sustenance” or “nourishment” (both Latin) over the Anglo, “food.”
In a way, “penultimate” could step up to the plate: it sounds like what we want to say – and with enough misuse, “penultimate” could change meanings, the way countless words have before it.
For example, “nice,” a 13th century word that originally meant “ignorant,” morphed several times in meaning -- as wanton, extravagant, elegant, strange, modest, thin, and shy – until settling on “pleasant” or “agreeable” around 1750. Other common word changes include “girl,” (a young person of either sex), “quick,” (alive), and “sophisticated” (corrupt).
In his book, “The Unfolding of Language,” linguist Guy Deutscher sees the word, “wicked” as undergoing a bit of a sea change, with the word now used commonly among teenagers to mean “awesome,” or “cool:” as in “a wicked party;” or “a wicked new song.” That same meaning existed among teens from Boston back in the 60’s and 70’s - it was fairly local then and despite what Deutscher (who is British) says, local authorities (i.e. my kids) say “wicked” in the U.S. is still used only in the Northeast, not nationwide.
The words “awesome” and “awful” are two other examples of word change. “Awe” itself means a feeling of amazement mixed with fear, often coupled with a feeling of personal insignificance or powerlessness: as in, the “awe” one feels when gazing at the Grand Canyon; or to be “in awe” of someone. Yet somehow, “awful” (the combination of “awe + full”) came to mean, “terrible;” and “awesome” has more recently come to be used as a synonym for “amazing.”
If enough people start using “penultimate” to mean “better than the best,” then that too could be a new standard meaning for the word. In a Google search, “penultimate” already has support for meaning “final” and “better than the best:”
Australian TV reported a few months ago, “AMP clears penultimate hurdle to buy AXA AP,” which, the news presenter explained, meant that the corporation’s takeover bid had “cleared the final hurdles.” Here, the use of “penultimate” is as a synonym for “final”; I imagine the late-night editor not wanting to repeat “final” hurdle, and thinking “ultimate hurdle” was not right, thought “penultimate” was undoubtedly just the thing.
Curiously, the folks at iPad have developed a new application called “The Penultimate,” a play on words for an app that makes it look as though you’re drawing or taking notes by hand with a pen, though it’s actually your own finger. The app’s name implies “better than the best” -- and as one reviewer confirmed, “Penultimate is the ultimate notes app for iPad.”
So the San Francisco Symphony is not alone in using and misusing “penultimate” in its program. And Language Lady hopes MORE such misuse of this word continues. Ultimately, “penultimate” (as “second to last”) simply sounds pretentious; however, if the word’s meaning could change to “better than the best,” then calling a performance or experience “the penultimate” would be infinitely more fitting.
All who agree can simply start wedging the word into their writing, and then casually into their speech, especially when coming back from Europe or the Hamptons. In this case, a little snob value might help push “penultimate” into linguistic radar among the rest of us, and thus deliver a new and improved “penultimate” to the next generation: The penultimate in linguistic contributions.