Why 'Penultimate' Doesn't Mean 'Best'

“Penultimate” doesn't mean "the best." It comes from a Latin word that means “almost ultimate.”

Mignon Fogarty
3-minute read

It’s not uncommon to see people misuse the word “penultimate” to describe something as better than the best, even more ultimate than the ultimate, but it actually means “the next to last.”

'Penultimate' comes from a Latin word that means 'almost ultimate.'

My editor, Adam Cecil, told me a hilarious story about one of his friends who misused the word and caused quite a problem, so I thought it would be fun to have him here to share that story with you today. 

ADAM: Very happy to save some people some trouble here. Essentially what happened is one of my friends misused the word and told his girlfriend at the time that she was his penultimate friend. His only defense was that he truly just did not know what the word meant and thought it meant ultra ultimate, but it caused quite a bit of a tiff, and they did eventually break up. I wouldn't't say it was because of this, but it didn't help.

MIGNON: It definitely didn't help. So I hope we can keep other people from making the same mistake. I'll start with telling you where the word comes from.

“Penultimate” comes from a Latin word that means “almost ultimate,” so the next to last book in a series, the next to last day of a vacation, the next to last month of the year, and the next to last game in a player’s career are all penultimate items or events.“Penultimate” is not the best of the bunch or the last of something; it is the second-best of the bunch or second-to-the-last of something. 

  • Squiggly won the penultimate prize in the raffle. (That would be the second to last prize in the raffle.)
  • Aardvark’s team is preparing for the penultimate game of the season. (That would be the team’s second to last game of the season.)

From the television version of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”:

Believe me, ladies and gentlemen, there is nothing penultimate about this one. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the proverbial it. After this, there is void... emptiness... oblivion... absolute nothing. 

Origin of ‘Penultimate’

“Penultimate” was actually a noun before it became an adjective. According to Etymonline, “penultimate” referred to the “next to the last syllable of a word or verse.” For example, I found an old dictionary from the 1800s that instructed people to “accent the penultimate” when explaining how to pronounce Greek and Latin proper names.

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The Latin prefix “paene-” (shortened here to “pen-”) means “almost” or “nearly.” It’s not very common anymore. Most words that use it now are obscure or rare (for example, “peneseismic” means regions where earthquakes occur only rarely or only of small magnitude, so it means something like “nearly seismic”), but one word still in common use is “peninsula,” which means “almost island.” A peninsula is a piece of land that is almost surrounded by water.

Another word from the same root that you might have heard, especially if you have watched an eclipse, is “penumbra.” “Umbra” means “shade or shadow,” so a penumbra is almost a shadow or a partly shaded area. During a total solar eclipse, the total eclipse is only visible from certain parts of earth that are properly aligned to see it. Those people are covered by the “umbra”—the shadow. But people outside that region still see a partial eclipse, and they are said to be covered by the “penumbra”—the partial shadow.

So the next time you want to describe something that is the best, simply call it the best or the ultimate—the ultimate prize in the raffle—not the penultimate prize. And never call your girlfriend your penultimate friend!

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.