Sometimes a word that was common in Latin at some point in the language’s existence ended up losing currency and not continuing on into the Romance languages. One such word was paene, which meant ‘almost.’ It didn’t survive in Spanish, getting replaced by casi. Or at least it didn’t survive in its own right, but it did leave traces in compounds. An instance of that is península/peninsula, which means etymologically ‘almost an insula,’ which is to say ‘almost an island.’ Another compound is penúltimo/penultimate, literally ‘almost the ultimate,’ meaning ‘almost the last; next-to-the-last.’ In English, ultimate has added the sense of a word that it sounds somewhat similar to, utmost. Then, following a familiar development in which words gradually lose meaning, there are increasingly many people who use words like amazing, incredible, terrific, great, fantastic, unbelievable, and now ultimate, to mean simply ‘good, likable.’
That reminds me now—and you’ll see why in a moment—of an experiment that has been done with children. The experimenter pours a fixed amount of water into two differently shaped glass containers, one that’s tall and narrow, the other that’s broad and low. A child who is young enough will believe that there’s more water in the tall and narrow container than in the broad and flat one, even after watching the same amount of water poured into each. Apparently children develop a sense of comparative magnitude initially in one dimension, in this case height, and only later expand that sense into two and three dimensions.
Something of that linear sense of magnitude seems to persist in some English-speaking adults. They think that if ultimate means ‘good,’ then penultimate, which is a longer word than ultimate, must mean ‘very good’ or ‘the best.’ In fact there are people who never learned the real meaning of penultimate and for whom those are the word’s only senses. That’s a recent development, and I don’t know how widespread the usage is. Educated people consider it a mistake, and no current dictionary that I’ve looked in includes the mistaken senses of penultimate. Will the error ultimately die out? Can we hope that it’s in its penultimate year?
© 2015 Steven Schwartzman