Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Penultimate

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, 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.


Majid Ali said...


Amedeo Chenier said...

Since the Language Lady shows no mercy and does not scruple to expose an august cultural institution such as the San Francisco Symphony, I will mention an establishment that has turned my gizzard green for years by misusing the word "penultimate" in their catalog. I am referring to the champion of the pure three button natural shoulder style jacket (which they call a "jacketing")- J Press. Many times tempted to go over there and try to straighten them out. I would not like to see the true meaning change due to respect for the Latin language and its magnificent contributions to our own English language.

Trailer Trash Mama said...

Hey LL, love your gentle expose of language misuse. You show great mercy I feel to the miscreants. I'd be reaching for a stick.

The Language Lady said...

Thanks to both you language-lovers for commenting! Still, I stick with my somewhat strange support of misusage in the case of "penultimate" -- I mean, really, when was the last (or first?) time you've said that word? I think it would get a lot more use - and I'd just love to roll it off my tongue when talking about, say, a fabulous dessert -- when referring to something beyond the best and not just second to last. Language Lady would like to see more romance and excitement penetrate our anglo- linguistic life -- and penultimate has some excellent, if suppressed, ability to spark just that -- if it only gets used, and misused, some more.

Anonymous said...

I really don't see what you're getting at. If you use ultimate as "beyond all other" (best in your words), then penultimate might be the "best female swan" or the "best animal enclosure" or the "best writing implement" - so where do you get penultimate as slightly more than ultimate? For a start, ultimate IS the absolute, and where do "we" reason pen makes it sound a bit more so?
I really think you are waffling on this subject - I have NEVER in my 50+ years heard (or read) the word penultimate used in any way other than the correct one. And, I frequently hear it used by "the ordinary joe".
I honestly think you've gone out of your way to find a few cases of misuse to give you something to write about.
Shame, becuase I usually find your blogs quite interesting - this one just made me think your "ideas pool" has dried up.

Anonymous said...

I'd have to disagree with the anonymous writer (coming from another). Over Sunday dinner my sister and I had a disagreement regarding the meaning of the word (she was right and I was left distraught when Google and The Language Lady provided the 'cyber' voice of reason). Kudos to The Language Lady for identifying this common misuse.

Anonymous said...

Well anonymous (second) I'm (first anonymous) shocked and surprised. I must have lived a very sheltered and correct literary life. The Language Lady and you are honestly the first two instances I've come across with the misuse of the word penultimate. Though I do live in UK, is it predominantly an American misuse?

Anonymous said...

A client of mine uses penultimate to mean "ultimate" and it has annoyed me for years. I dare not point out her misuse. And I would not want to see the meaning change because what wonderful word would we have to mean "next to last?" None!

Britton Swingler said...

Delightful, though surely not the penultimate post I will read on this word - since things do tend to happen in threes. Loved the whole thing - including the anonymous commenters' almost-banter (is there a good word for almost banter - does raillery fit?).

Though I have probably never (or perhaps rarely) uttered this delicious word (penultimate), the definition in my head was incorrect until today, so thank you.

Unknown said...

Please help me settle an argument. My friends think that the runner up in a beauty contest is the penultimate contestant. I think they are misusing the word. What say you?

Anonymous said...

I have no problem with language evolving naturally (although there are some truly ugly words coming from the USA like "incentivisation" instead of "motivation" which make me cringe) but why on earth would you actively promote the change of a perfectly good word like penultimate. If it loses its current (true?) meaning, what word would you use to identify something as the next to last step in a process, or the last but one in a sequence?

It's bad enough that "ultimate" has been hijacked to effectively now mean "the best" rather than "the last" (what was wrong with using "best" anyway if that's what was meant?) but to then take another word with a very clear meaning and convert it to mean "better than the best" seems pointless.... and, being pedantic for a moment, how can anything be "better than the best" (or, as you said in your comment above, "beyond the best") - if something is the best than nothing can be better; conversely, if there is something better than it, it cannot be "the best". Something might be "the best so far" or "the best I've ever tasted" etc. but to describe anything as simply "the best" is asking to be proved wrong tomorrow or next week or next year...

Why be so fixated on superlatives - is it that in the Trumpiverse everything has to be the biggest, the best, the most beautiful? Why can't things simply be good, or excellent, or superb, or wonderful? There are plenty of choices in the language already. And what comes next when penultimate has been worked to death and you want something even bettererererer ... super-mega-ultimate? overly-penultimate? ultimately-penultimate?

My suggestion, for what it's worth (probably nothing), would be to stop describing things as "ultimate" and learn a few more adjectives that would provide the romance you say you want: for a wonderful desert you might describe it as "the essence of divine worship given form on my taste buds" or "a creamy delight that left my tongue yearning for more" or maybe just "oh my god that would put Sally to shame" (and if you don't get that allusion - google the restaurant scene in When Harry met Sally... I'll have what she's having)