There’s a Good Chance Penultimate Doesn’t Mean What You Think

The word ‘penultimate’ is one that looks like it’d mean one thing, but it serves as a reminder that looks can indeed be deceiving.

Think fast: How do you define penultimate?

I read an online article the other day written by a person who said she’d been slaving away on a project and had reached the “penultimate moment.” That moment, she went on to explain, was getting the approval she hoped for from her employer.

What she meant to write was that she had reached the ultimate moment.

In the interest of full disclosure, I did a quick search of this blog and found that a few years ago, I’d made the same mistake!

Ultimate entered English in the 1650s, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. It came to our language from the Latin ultimatus, and referred to the “last, final, farthest, most distant or extreme.”

Over time, it began to imply the “greatest” or “best” as well.

The OED refers to “Ultimate Frisbee,” which was introduced in 1972: it is billed as the “greatest” or “most extreme” variation on a game of frisbee.

No one, oddly enough, calls it “penultimate frisbee,” yet often, when we’re searching for a word that means what ultimate does, we’ll make that wrong word choice instead.

Granted, there is a bit of logic in this one: if ultimate is so great, adding a prefix to it must make penultimate one step greater. The online Urban Dictionary points out that it fools people who don’t know any better.

But it doesn’t mean “greater than ultimate.” In fact, it means something entirely different:

‘Penultimate’ means ‘next to the last.

The OED explains the word came into English in the 1670s from enultima, which referred to “proximate.” The reference to proximity goes in line with being “near” the greatest as opposed to being the greatest.

So the next time you’re about to refer to a “penultimate moment,” stop yourself immediately. Ultimate will not only suffice, it’s the word you’d mean instead!

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 27 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.