Three penultimate comments

Comments on my posting on penultimate (in penultimate Frisbee) took three directions: a comic association with antepenultimate; complaints about a relatively recent non-standard use of penultimate (to mean ‘absolutely final, absolutely the best’); and complaints about using ultimate and unique and other so-called “non-gradable” adjectives as gradables (modifiable by degree adverbials).

The Latinate adjective penultimate is not a terribly frequent word outside of phonological discussions (as in the rules for Latin accent placement). For most purposes, the ordinary English expressions next-to-last, second-to-last, etc. will do just fine, and the first is shorter than penultimate. Brevity and  (relative) semantic transparency speak for next-to-last. What penultimate has going for it is primarily its elevated tone, as against the down-to-earth next-to-last.

1. Antepenultimate. This word (meaning ‘third-to-last’, or ‘third from the end’) is even rarer and more rarefied. It’s pretty much restricted to phonological discussions (the main part of the Latin accent placement rule: accent the antepenult — the antepenultimate syllable — if it’s heavy, otherwise accent the penult). So it’s a delight to see the word used outside of this context, as in Flanders and Swann’s comic Madeira song (full text here):

“Have some Madeira, m’dear!
I’ve got a small cask of it here
And once it’s been opened, you know it won’t keep
Do finish it up, it will help you to sleep.
Have some Madeira, m’dear!
It’s really an excellent year.
Now if it were gin, you’d be wrong to say yes,
The evil gin does would be hard to assess
(Besides it’s inclined to affect my prowess)
Have some Madeira, m’dear!”

Then there flashed though her mind what her mother had said
With her antepenultimate breath:
“Oh my child, should you look at the wine which is red
Be prepared for a fate worse than death!”
She let go her glass with a shrill little cry.
Crash! Tinkle! It fell to the floor.
When he asked “what in Heaven?” she made no reply,
Up her mind, and a dash for the door.

(Note the extraordinary zeugmatic flourish at the end.)

Dean Allemang on Facebook, in response to my penultimate Frisbee posting: “I used to be on an ante-penultimate Frisbee team with Flanders and Swann.”

2. Innovative penultimate. Others were riled by the innovative sense of penultimate (which is, from the evidence in MWDEU, at least 30 years old). Khysso Heart LeFey on Facebook: “What continually irritates me is when people use “penultimate” to mean… super-ultimate.” And Khrysso notes, correctly, that this arises from people not knowing the meaning of the prefix pen-.

But even to recognize that penultimate has (historically) the prefix pen- in it (which occurs in only a few other words in English), much less to know its meaning (from a Latin adverb meaning ‘almost’), you’d need to know the etymology of penultimate, and that’s the sort of information that ordinary people simply don’t have (and should not be expected to have).

Instead, people pick up the meanings of words from the way other people seem to use them in context; everyone guesses at the meanings of unfamiliar words. And fairly often they guess wrong.

(At this point, some commenter always says that if a word is unfamiliar to you, well, then you should look it up in a dictionary or ask an authority. This is preposterous advice. No one (I hope) carries a dictionary, or a lexicographic authority, around with them to consult on the meanings of words they encounter during the daily lives, nor should they be expected to. Life goes on at a rapid clip, and you have to cope with it as it comes.

Some people report having been explicitly instructed on the meaning of penultimate, by teachers. I was at first puzzled by this, because penultimate is not an especially useful word, but then I realized the teachers were not giving out this information as useful vocabulary, but specifically to keep their students from falling into the error of using innovative penultimate ‘ultimate, final, last’. Sigh.)

The thing about penultimate is that it sounds and looks like ultimate plus something (along the lines of pan- or maybe para-) — that is, like an emphatic ultimate — and some of the examples MWDEU cites would be consistent with either ‘next-to-last’ or ‘absolutely last’, so things are set up for people to interpret the word in a new way. And then other people pick up the new sense from them, and it spreads — which it seems to have done. (Huge numbers of linguistic changes originate in errors of one kind or another, and then spread.)

Certainly, penultimate ‘absolutely final’ would be more useful in daily life than penultimate ‘next-to-last’. It’s not surprising that it’s spread.

For innovative penultimate in the comics, see this Language Log posting by Mark Liberman.

3. Modifying “non-gradables”. Other commenters on my penultimate posting were drawn to unique and to “non-gradables” in general (including ultimate). This is an old story. From a 2008 posting of mine on pseudo-adjectives:

Note on some adjectives that have been widely castigated as non-gradable because of their meaning: unique is the classic example. Some people claim that adjectives like unique cannot take degree modifiers (very unique, how unique) BECAUSE OF THEIR MEANING: unique MEANS ‘only one’. Part of this claim is just fallacious Originalism (Etymology is Destiny), part raw assertion that the critic knows what the word REALLY means. To which I always ask, “How do you know this?” And, “What do you mean by really?”

This particular case is a topic for another posting. But the general situation is clear: if a word denotes the end-point of some scale (as unique surely does [and ultimate as well]), then it can be used — and will be used — in describing approximations to that end-point, using approximative expressions like almost and nearly. (If there are only two occurrences of X in the world, then each of these is nearly unique.) Then, of course, you can ask how close to the end-point something is by asking how X it is, and you can describe something that has very few competitors for being the one and only as very X, and you can describe something that has no competitors at all as entirely X.

Back up. Some of you are objecting that unique does not denote the end-point of a scale, and you say that because unique is not used in mathematics that way. But it’s a mistake to suppose, when we’re talking about ordinary language, that the mathematical usage of terms takes priority over ordinary people’s usage of them. Yes, in mathematical usage, unique is used “crisply”, for ‘one and only one’ (and that’s an important concept to have in mathematical contexts), but, frankly, this really doesn’t have beans to do with how unique is used in ordinary English. Instead, the mathematical usage is a specialization, a refinement, of ordinary English in a technical context. (The ‘one and only’ use of UNMODIFIED unique is of course alive and well in modern English.)

Scalar relationships are incredibly important in the way people structure the world and talk about it, and people are inclined to see scalarity whenever they can.

The larger point is that adjectives like unique are in fact gradable in ordinary English — while pseudo-adjectives [like electrical in electrical engineer] are in general really really non-gradable.

MWDEU has a long entry on unique, with a history of the word’s uses and a history of critical opinion about it. This is yet another case, unfortunately, where many writers and editors are dead set against a usage (whatever the actual practice of many other writers), so that using it will bring the disapproval of these critics down on your head.

I don’t have much more to say on the topic. I suppose I’ll just have to re-post this passage whenever “non-gradable” unique comes up, as it does with distressing regularity.


7 Responses to “Three penultimate comments”

  1. Julian Lander Says:

    Lots of comments on this one. First, I’ll note for the zeugmaphiles among us that the Flanders and Swan song has many more zeugmas in it; it’s perfectly delightful. And it’s becoming easier and easier to carry dictionaries around with us–my Kindle has one as part of its factory-provided content, and I suspect they’re easy to find with smart phones as well. Regarding “unique” and gradable, it’s not “almost unique” that reduces me to cries of pain, but “more unique” or “most unique.” I suppose you could assert that unique is simply a synonym for “rare,” but I’d much rather not. Then again, I am a mathemetician, so the technical meeting is the default. Finally, I will note that I never use the word “penultimate” any more: it’s so last year!

  2. Peter Korn Says:

    Arnold – I ABSOLUTELY carry “a dictionary, or a lexicographic authority, around with [me] to consult on the meanings of words [I] encounter during [my daily life]”. It’s called an iPhone, and it contains as apps several reference works, as well as an app that provides a custom interface to Wikipedia (“WIkipanion”) and a customized interface to IMBd (“IMDb”). I consult various of these several times a week when I encounter things unfamiliar to me that I wish to know more about. And I don’t find this to have a negative impact on my experiencing life “at a rapid clip”!

  3. Peter Korn Says:

    One more thought… I’m curious where you would place the “grade-ability” of non-mathematical uses of the word “infinite”. While things can “approach the infinite” (particularly in a mathematical sense – what else is ‘lim’?), but the penultimate thing prior to the infinite???

  4. arnold zwicky Says:

    Peter (and Julian): I’d failed to take into account that for a few years now, lots of people have iPhones with both dictionaries and authorities on them. But this is a truly recent development; the history of JUST LOOK IT UP OR ASK AN AUTHORITY is, in contrast, deep.

    And even now I suspect that most people don’t look everything up. For one thing, they’d have to realize that the usage was in fact unfamiliar — not something that comes to consciousness very often in the flurry of social interaction, where millions (at least) of pieces of sociocultural information come by us every day.

  5. strangeguitars Says:

    Of course looking something up when you’re in the middle of a conversation is going to be inconvenient to you and obnoxious to your conversation partners, but I can’t see any wrong in encouraging people to look up words after the conversation, or even more enthusiastically, when writing. It’s getting rare for me to find myself writing in an environment where a dictionary isn’t just a click or two away. I have offline dictionaries in my phone for whatever languages I use, and my phone is always in my pocket.

    Occasionally in a conversation there even will be some matter important enough to warrant pausing the conversation for looking up a word.

    On unique, if X is unique and Y is unique (in that they each have features that set themselves apart from the mainstream and from each other), then you can say “they are unique”.

    Also, what about cases where X and Y are both different from the mainstream in their own ways (thus each being unique), but X has more things distinguishing it from the mainstream than Y does? Doesn’t that make X “more unique”?

  6. John Says:

    I grew up in a household where “Look it up in the dictionary,” was a common refrain. We kids did. The dictionary became one of my favorite books for bedtime reading.

    Between my desktop, laptop, and smart phone, I’m never far from a dictionary should I need it. My mind is still sufficiently limber for me to hold a word in limbo until I can get to one of those devices.

    Of course people are free to use and abuse language as they do — they don’t even have to deem it fit to do so. I’m equally free to pass judgments about their intellectual achievement — and I do.

  7. jlundell Says:

    (OED on my (Mac) desktop, and I just discovered that my library card will get me access to the online OED via my phone. MWDEU, Cambridge Grammar…)

    I’m a fan of the pen- words, penultimate, peninsula & penumbra being the ones that approach common usage and illustrate the utility of etymology. Pendragon, sadly, isn’t related.

    There’s a moderately popular iPad app named Penultimate, but it’s more of a play on “ultimate pen”, a drawing/sketching app.

    I wasn’t going to comment here until I noticed another app, a game called Penumbear. “Penumbear has his own unique ability to walk on the lines where shadow and light meet!” 99¢ in the app store.

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