Latin paene

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


21 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. lensandpensbysally
    Jun 20, 2015 @ 07:56:00

    Really enjoyed this one.


  2. Maria F.
    Jun 20, 2015 @ 22:56:18

    What’s interesting is that “ultimatum” remained the same, both in English and Spanish, meaning “final demand or statement,” neuter of ultimatus. What I also see is where the confusion may have begun: from Latin “ultimus” (fem. ultima) “last, final, farthest, most distant, extreme,” is a superlative of *ulter= “beyond”, as a noun from 1680s. “Ultimate Frisbee” is attested by 1972. So a new form of sport is what I think gave birth to this new meaning: “Ultimate is a Limited-contact team field sport played with a flying disc (frisbee). Points are scored by passing the disc to a teammate in the opposing end zone.” So as a superlative of “ultimus” came the word-forming element meaning “beyond” (ultraviolet) or “extremely” (ultramodern), from Latin “ulter”- from ultra (adv. and prep.) “beyond, on the other side”, or “on the farther side, past, over, across”, and was applied to the sport. “Ultimate Frisbee” is of North American origin (According to the OED)


    • Maria F.
      Jun 20, 2015 @ 23:38:13

      This is a really interesting definition from the Oxford Dictionaries:

      1-(the ultimate) The best achievable or imaginable of its kind:
      the ultimate in decorative luxury

      2-A final or fundamental fact or principle.

      3-North American short for Ultimate Frisbee.

      So even the British use “ultimate” the same way as the Americans. Still it seems to have derived from Latin “ulter”- from “ultra”, according to the OED.

      In Spanish the word “ultimate” is also used in a similar way as in English, but goes accompanied with an idiomatic phrase, or at least with a pronoun, suggesting the same meaning as in English. Ej.: “Ella se viste con “lo ultimo” de la moda.” (she dresses with “latest” fashion or trend), or, “El usa “lo ultimo” en computadoras”, (He uses the “latest” computer model, i.e., the “best”)

      Another word that I thought was interesting was “penumbra”, from the 1660s, from Modern Latin penumbra “partial shadow outside the complete shadow of an eclipse,” coined 1604 by Kepler from Latin pæne “almost” + umbra “shadow”. OED says “umbra” (shadow) derives from “umbral” (threshold), which in turn derives from “lumbral”, which in turn derives from latín “liminaris”, which means what’s first or at the beginning of something. All this is also related to “preliminaris” and “preliminar” which is used the same way both in English and Spanish. “Preliminar” in the1660s, derives from French préliminaire and directly from Medieval Latin “praeliminaris”, from Latin prae- “before” (see pre-) + limen (genitive liminis) “threshold”.


      • Steve Schwartzman
        Jun 21, 2015 @ 03:48:22

        I hadn’t realized that Kepler was the person who coined penumbra. By coincidence, a few days ago I watched a program about his three laws of planetary motion.

        Umbral is a Spanish word, so umbra, which is a classical Latin word, can’t derive from umbral. As you suggest, umbral ultimately traces back to Latin līmen, which meant ‘threshold.’


        • Maria F.
          Jun 21, 2015 @ 04:00:48

          Yes, umbral derived from “limen”, which could be a much older word.


        • Steve Schwartzman
          Jun 21, 2015 @ 04:03:03

          At least I assume you were referring to the Spanish word umbral, because you got into a discussion of thresholds. But if you meant the English adjective umbral, it was based on Latin umbra, and not the other way around. English umbral and Spanish umbral are unrelated.


          • Maria F.
            Jun 21, 2015 @ 09:12:07

            Yes, I see, it came from French “umbrage”, from noun use of Latin “umbraticum” “of or pertaining to shade; being in retirement.” “Umbral” in Spanish is a really interesting word, however, I had to review it. It’s very specific. For example, instead of saying, “Ahí está el límite de su dolor”, one says “Ahí está el “umbral” de su dolor.
            (There is the “threshold of his pain”).


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jun 21, 2015 @ 03:33:34

      Both languages borrowed ultimatum in its Latin form. That strikes me as more unusual in Spanish than in English, because Spanish doesn’t normally tolerate m as a final consonant.

      The native English relative of all those words derived from Latin ulter is else.


      • Maria F.
        Jun 21, 2015 @ 03:37:46

        On the OED it says it’s ultra.


      • Maria F.
        Jun 21, 2015 @ 09:35:42

        Okay, you’re talking about “ulterior” from the 1640s, meaning “on the other side of,” from Latin ulterior “more distant, more remote, farther, on the farther side,” comparative of *ulter “beyond” (see ultra-), according to the OED,
        My hypothesis is that “ultimate” deviated because of this “ulter” and “ultra”.

        Ultimátum, as you know, just added the accent.


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  4. Gallivanta
    Jun 21, 2015 @ 06:04:42

    Who knows what the ultimate fate of penultimate will be? Ultimately only time will tell.


  5. shoreacres
    Jun 21, 2015 @ 06:05:04

    This one made me smile. When I was reminded recently of the difference between “principle” and “principal,” I thought to myself and very nearly said, “Yes, but I did recently get ‘peninsula’ right.” The reason I got it right, of course, is because somewhere along the line I learned this lesson from you: though not quite in the detail you offer here.

    In your list containing “amazing, incredible, terrific, great, fantastic, unbelievable,” you could have added one of the most overused and irritating words there is: “awesome.” I have friends and acquaintances who use it for everything from a pretty sunset to a plate of tasty barbeque. I have no idea what they’ll say if they run into a burning bush.

    I can’t remember the last time I came across “utmost.” My hunch is that it’s more commonly used in British English today than American English, but that’s only a hunch. What the word does bring to mind is Oswald Chambers’s 1935 devotional book, “My Utmost for His Highest.” I’ve never read it, and I don’t think I’ve even seen a copy of it, but it seems to have endured as one of the most popular uses of the word “utmost.” There’s even an Utmost App available.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jun 21, 2015 @ 09:02:46

      How could I have omitted the awesome word awesome? Look at the way it zoomed after World War II:

      I hadn’t picked up on the decline of utmost but your hunch is right on the money (or just right on, as hippies and would-be revolutionaries used to say):

      I hadn’t even heard of “My Utmost for His Highest,” but I see what you mean about its enduring popularity, even to having the utmost validation of existence now, an app for it.


  6. Maria F.
    Jun 21, 2015 @ 09:19:29

    I also find the word “awesome” irritating, it’s confirmed to be a slang for “remarkable”. See here:


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jun 21, 2015 @ 11:12:14

      The English word awful has drifted, too, but differently. Originally awful meant literally ‘struck or filled with awe,’ which amounted to ‘terror-stricken’ (given the early sense of awe as ‘dread; great fear mingled with respect’).


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