Monday, June 05, 2006

Almost There

Q. People seem to love to use the word "penultimate" when describing something that is the very best. It is my understanding that it actually means next to the last. Am I right?

A. You are correct, CJ. I’ve seen it misused on various web sites, for instance, as well as in print. Obviously, some people mistake it as an intensified form of ultimate. If only they knew the truth: they are actually proclaiming themselves as second best!

In fact, this is one of the terms used to describe the position of the last 3 syllables in a word. This was important in classical Greek, where certain elements of stress could or could not be used depending on the syllable’s location. The ultima was the very last syllable (ultima = "last"), the penult was one syllable back ("almost last"), and the antepenult was two back from the end ("before the almost last"). The adjectives for those words would be ultimate, penultimate, and amtepenultimate.

The -pen- segment comes from the Latin word paene, almost. It also appears in the word peninsula, which may be translated as “almost an island.” Also related is the word penury, meaning the condition of being destitute; hardship, poverty, need. Penumbra, a partial shadow (as in an eclipse), may be translated as “almost shadow.”

Speaking of misused terms, have you noticed how "that begs the question" has been wrenched from its proper meaning? For centuries, it was a philosophical term designating an argument in which the truth is assumed instead of being buttressed by evidence. It is circular reasoning, as in, "He can't possibly be lying because he's a truthful person." Another example: "God exists because the Bible says so, and God wrote the Bible, so it can't be wrong."

Now commentators and writers use "that begs the question" as if it meant "that raises the question." I don't care how widespread it's become (it's a regular gaffe on CNBC); it's still ignorant.

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