A recent misuse of the word “penultimate” in these fora for the articulate and clear-thinking has made me think the word should simply be abolished. Here is my reasoning.
I would say the English-speaking population (in the U.S., at least) breaks down as follows:
50% have never heard the word and have no idea what it means.
40% have heard the word but are wrong about what it means.
10% have heard the word and know what it means.
Let’s throw out the 50% who have never heard the word. Chances are, you’re not talking to them. If you are, you know not to use the word because they will think you’re talkin’ fancy-talk. But even among the rest of the population, you have an 80% chance of being misunderstood. And your listener will likely propagate his or her misunderstanding. Ergo, ignorance spreads.
Let’s say you’re the listener, and someone says “penultimate.” Chances are, you do a little calculus in your head. Hm. Does this person know what that word really means? If I’m not sure, do I risk offending him or her by asking a clarifying question? There’s a whole can of worms, right there. You might offend, if you ask. So you probably don’t ask people who are only casual acquaintances or colleagues. But if your uncertainty is not resolved, then information has been transmitted quite imperfectly. Ergo, ignorance spreads.
Other ways of expressing the same thought are just as good, if not as eloquent (read: fancy-soundin’). “Second-to-last,” for instance.
Perhaps there comes a time in the history of a word when its misuse and/or obscurity has become so widespread that it should be retired.
Ordinarily during such discussions I note the horrible fates that will befall those who misuse “penultimate” and “flammable” once I am god-king, but I think at this point my mere presence in the thread is sufficient.
Google “penultimate achievement.” For some reason, this phrase really sticks in the mind of those Category 2’ers.
Ferinstance, I had no idea that so many dancers dreamed of having their second to last achievement being performing in a Broadway musical. But maybe the author of that page used the term correctly, and professional dancers are a morbid sort that tend to commit seppuku after they perform on Broadway and then do one other thing.
One of my favorite lines (Don’t ask me why, it’s not about dolphins or 42 or anything common) from The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is: “Believe me, ladies and gentlemen, there’s nothing penultimate about this one!”* From Max Quordlepleen, the host at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe (describing said end of the universe.)
It was the very first time I came across a word that I chose to look up in the dictionary instead of it being assigned busywork.
There’s nothing penultimate about my love for the word penultimate. It’s my favoritest word ever.
*from memory, but I think that’s right. It’s been about 10 years since I read it last, so I could be off.
On the contrary. Whenever anyone tells me about something being penultimate, I always ask them what the ultimate is. If they’re using it correctly, then there is some other thing which is ultimate, they say what it is, and additional information is transmitted. If, on the other hand, they’re using it incorrectly, it will become apparent, and it’s an opportunity for them to learn.
While we’re at it, let’s cast out quintessential. A lot of people think it mean’s really, really important, as in five times as essential as something that’s just essential. That ain’t what it means, people.