PENULTIMATE: “last but one in a series of things; second to last” — New Oxford American Dictionary
We haven’t yet spotted this gem of a word used wrong, but it’s only a matter of time. A colleague of mine confessed she always thought it was a superlative form of ultimate. I made sure to spare her no grief — by definition, ultimate is the final superlative; nothing can be more ultimate than the ultimate.
Except, of course, in today’s post-armageddon world where the twisted bodies of nuanced and perfect English words lie in tangled heaps, trampled by the marching hordes of business writers, ad wags and lazy journalists. Ultimate today simply means “really great” — like an “ultimate brownie” (an example proffered to me by a class of middle schoolers). Its original meaning of being the last or final in a series is retained primarily in the word ultimatum, although how many times has someone threatened to give “one more ultimatum?”
I blame advertisers for this one. If every huckster of whirlpool baths claims to offer the “ultimate in luxury,” what’s a seventh-grader to think?
Nevertheless, penultimate remains safe until some cretin on “American Idol” uses it, right or wrong. Already, my wife has had a major discussion with her boss on whether to use the word in a document for fear of misunderstanding. Since her boss is a federal judge and the document in question was a court opinion, they wisely decided to use “second to last,” but I urged (or “ranted at,” in her estimation) her to hold the line on penultimate and let some idiot lawyer down the road pay the price. At which point she gave me a penultimatum. It sounded really serious, so I shut up.
— Otto E. Mezzo