Mike Chambers (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) wrote that he heard a golf commentator on XM Radio use the word penultimate during the tournament at Cog Hill last weekend. “What surprised me most,” wrote Mike, “is that he used it correctly.”
I know what Mike means. In recent years, many writers and commentators have fallen into the error that penultimate is some kind of intensifier. If ultimate is high praise, penultimate kicks it up to a new level. Incorrecto, amigo.
Penultimate means second best or next to the last; ultimate means best or last. The –pen- element comes from the Latin word paene, which meant almost. The literal translation, then, is “almost last or best.”
The paene prefix also shows up in the word peninsula, which means “almost an island.” A peninsula, of course, is a piece of land that is almost completely surrounded by water.
Penumbra is a partially shaded area, a word applied to the shadow cast by the moon on the earth in a solar eclipse, or by the earth on the moon in a lunar eclipse, resulting in an area that experiences only a partial eclipse. Hence, almost a full shadow.
Two other words that may involve the prefix paene are penitent and penury, the condition of being destitute.
Some fanciful words sprang up over the years, but didn’t perdure.
- pene-perfection: “The perfection, or even pene-perfection of the Methodists.” [Coleridge]
- penefelonious: “‘Lots,’ said the pene-felonious traveler -- ‘good place to camp’.” [Boldrewood]
- pene-infinite: “These pene-infinite insolencies, which are the most finite Infinites of misery to men.” [Ward]
- peneomnipotent: “That peneomnipotent thing, public opinion.” [Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine]
- pene-lake: an expanse of water almost surrounded by land.
- peneseismic: (of a region) in which earthquakes occur infrequently and with little or no destructive force.
Now available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition
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