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The Penultimate Insult

Keeping on the topic of vocabulary, I’d like to tell a story of a very unintentional insult given in public.

One Sunday during church, our very well read, well educated, exceptionally intelligent pastor proceeded to introduce a guest speaker by referring to him as being the “penultimate authority”. Can you guess why I and a few others gasped hearing that?

What do you think “penultimate” means?

Wait for it…..

It is a commonly misused word which people think means the “supremely ultimate”, the “best of ultimate”. Hmmm…not quite. It actually means “second to last” or “next to last”. In the context it was said by the pastor, it definitely would be an insult but certainly not one he intended. When I mentioned his error to him, he would not believe me so I challenged him to look it up in the dictionary. He was chagrined to the max, we still laugh about it years later and of course, insert the word every chance we get into our conversations. One Sunday he even inserted it into a sermon to see if I was paying attention.

I have heard very competent news reporters and news anchors misuse the word thinking it is a compliment or positive descriptor. So, one can be quite well educated and still royally mess up a word meaning. It pays to presume the person is merely ignorant of the meaning and intended well.

{ 87 comments… add one }
  • Cat Whisperer April 26, 2012, 2:54 pm

    Gotta add that husband sometimes mixes up his metaphors. My daughter and I still make reference to “biting the bull by the horn,” which my husband said one day when he mashed together “biting the bullet” and “taking the bull by the horns.”

  • Snowy April 26, 2012, 2:59 pm

    I learned that it can be used depending on whether you’re “counting up” or “counting down.” For example, you have a problem at your bank and the tellers can’t help you, or give you answers you don’t want. You keep working up the chain until you get to the vice president. Only one person is above him, so that makes him the penultimate authority in the matter–because he’s the next to last person you can appeal to.

  • Elle April 26, 2012, 3:04 pm

    I worked at a coffeeshop for a wonderful man. He was good naturedly teasing me one afternoon.

    Him: Elle, you’ve got to use smaller words. This is Jacksonville, NC. We’re all dumb jarheads here. You can’t use such high-pollutin’ language.

    Me: …….. it’s “highfalutin.”

    Him: See this is *exactly* what I’m talkin’ about.

  • Angela April 26, 2012, 3:22 pm

    My sister’s MIL and SIL are notorious for this…it drives my sister craze to hear “take it for granite” and “it’s a mute point” and “for all intensive purposes”.

    Nick it in the butt…that’s pretty funny.
    Not sure if this language is OK but my husband was cut off in traffic one day and was in a bad mood anyway, and yelled (inside the car, the other driver was well out of range) a mishmash of two serious insults: “YOU ASSBUTT!!!!!” I doubled over laughing and when he realized what he had said, it was hard to keep that bad mood up.

  • Wink-N-Smile April 26, 2012, 3:41 pm

    Elle – high-pollutin’! Oh, man, that’s hysterical!

  • Wink-N-Smile April 26, 2012, 3:44 pm

    livvy17 – I’m with you on that.

    When people type “btw” for “by the way,” I don’t really have a problem with that, in the proper context of an informal written chat. However, when they SAY “btw,” (pronounced beeteedoubleyou), instead of “by the way,” it just makes me want sort of twitchy. I ask why they do that, and they say it’s a shorthand for by the way.

    First of all, shorthand involves the hand, as in writing, and secondly, btw is two syllables longer than by the way.

  • Wink-N-Smile April 26, 2012, 4:01 pm

    I’d like to know why inflammable and flammable both mean the same thing.

    Calliope and Miss Ann Thrope – I think the issue is not so much the elegance of simple language. It can, indeed, be very elegant, when it is simple. I know a lovely poem that uses only one syllable words, but they flow together so nicely that it is elegant and beautiful. And yes, when people are trying hard to sound flowery and more educated, they often make mistakes.

    However, if you know the word, what it means, and how to use it properly, you won’t make a malapropism, so that’s not a problem. And unless you’re actively searching out all the different fusses people have made over words, such as picnic (?! that was a new one for me) and other words that some under-educated people have decided to call offensive, you’re likely to wind up using one or two, just as a matter of natural speech.

    I don’t believe that the admin purposefully chose the word to cause an uproar. I think she chose it, because it accurately expressed her meaning, and then after posting, she wondered about the response. Ehelldame has never been what I’d call an instigator.

    If you don’t know how to use a word, and you use it wrong, by all means avoid using it. But if you know it, and it is natural to you, editing it out for simpler language will only feel stilted and awkward, and that is never elegant. And to those who know that you know the word, and who also know the word, hearing your stilted, edited speech will be insulting, as they will take it to mean that you think they are not smart enough to understand you, and will feel patronized.

    And those who demand you drop words because someone *might* take offence at an inoffensive words, are actually telling you to patronize them. I find that rather odd, because I do not like being patronized. The very word reminds me of the odious “Lady Catherine de Burgh” from Pride and Prejudice (“My esteemed patroness”). Even though the two words don’t mean the same thing, she was the most patronizing woman, and so incredibly annoying, and I’d hate to have that attitude directed at me, even if it wasn’t meant to be.

  • --Lia April 26, 2012, 4:07 pm

    What all these examples of malapropisms and mistakes are telling me is that there’s a fine line between using the language in a playful way and mangling it. When someone I love uses a big word in an offbeat, maybe even imprecise way, I adore it. When someone I don’t care for does the same thing, I think they’re being stupid.

  • Jared Bascomb April 26, 2012, 4:15 pm

    My former supervisor used to refer to the decision-makers above her as “the powers to be” instead of “the powers that be”. I never corrected her or pointed out that she was making no sense.
    Oh, and she couldn’t spell “tomorrow” – kept throwing an “a” in there somewhere; at first I thought it was a typo, but it kept happening.
    She was an all-around idiot who made my work life hell, so I saw no reason to make her look like something other than the fool she was.

  • amyasleigh April 26, 2012, 4:19 pm

    Something which has occurred to me, rather late in the discussion. I wonder whether — as in the originating piece, with the pastor’s words — a confusion of similar-sounding words can sometimes be in play, with “penultimate”. There’s the element of the “counting-up” view, in which “penultimate” might be seen to mean “second to the very best”. Maybe — with the “counting-up” interpretation also perhaps in mind — people can at times say “penultimate”, having it mentally mixed-up with — and wanting to convey the meaning of — “preeminent”. The latter word (4 syllables) indicating (per Wiktionary) “Exceeding others in quality or rank; of outstanding excellence, extremely notable or important.”

  • NZHoney April 26, 2012, 4:41 pm

    @Twik – according to dictionary.com, the following is what they deem to be the meaning of decimate…

    dec·i·mate [des-uh-meyt]
    Verb (used with object), dec·i·mat·ed, dec·i·mat·ing.
    1. to destroy a great number or proportion of: The population was decimated by a plague.
    2. to select by lot and kill every tenth person of.
    3. Obsolete . to take a tenth of or from.

    According to them, the definition to take one tenth is obsolete…

  • Jenn50 April 26, 2012, 4:56 pm

    One that drives me bonkers is “Orientated”. In EMS, we talk about a patient’s mental status in terms of whether or not they are alert, and oriented to their surroundings. Many practitioners have fallen into saying “orientated”, and worse still, they then teach their student medics the term as though it was a special medical word. It irks me to no end that people can use the wrong word so often that it becomes an accepted usage and eventually shows up in the dictionary. If “irregardless” has turned up in the dictionary as acceptable, it’s only because there are enough people without a firm grasp on the language to understand that “irr” means “without”, and “less” means “a lack of”, so “irregardless” means “Without a lack of regard” and actually means the opposite of what they think it does.

    I chuckled inwardly at a meeting the other day. One colleague, who was an expert in the subject matter he was presenting was constantly interrupted by another colleague who clearly hadn’t been listening, didn’t understand the issue, and was using incorrect assumptions to support his argument. The first man told him in a conciliatory tone, “You’re not unwrong.” and then breezed past him to continue his presentation. I don’t know if anyone else twigged to the fact that he meant “You ARE wrong.” in light of the fact that his tone of voice sounded like he was conceding a point.

  • lkb April 26, 2012, 4:57 pm

    I’m a writer and sometime proofreader so I have heard/read many of these often.

    They remind me of a funny thing that takes place between me and a friend of mine. We’re both Catholic and we often go to a weekday Mass at a particular church. After that Mass, some attendees will remain to pray the Rosary (a prayer that typically takes about 15 to 20 minutes). My friend will often be the one to announce that the Rosary will be prayed (after a brief pause presumably to give the priest a chance to get out of his vestments).

    Anyway, she often said, “We will pray the Rosary in five minutes.”

    Until I jokingly told her — “Betcha can’t!”

    Now, whenever she knows I’m there, she will say, “In five minutes, we will pray the Rosary, ” and then turn and give me a meaningful look (all the while with a gleam in her eye).

  • Shalamar April 26, 2012, 5:32 pm

    My MIL always says “antipasta” when she means “antipasto”. Once, at dinner, she brandished the jar at me and asked “Antipasta?”. I replied “Not really, but I do prefer potatoes.”. She didn’t get it.

  • Shalamar April 26, 2012, 5:41 pm

    Bad kitty, I’m pretty sure it’s “got another THINK coming”. It’s usually used in a sentence like “if you think blah blah blah, you’ve got another think coming”.

  • FunkyMunky April 26, 2012, 5:59 pm

    I’d be happy to ignore ‘irregardless’ if we can get rid of “should of” and “must of” in writing.

  • Tori April 26, 2012, 6:18 pm

    Just read the first page if ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Penultimate Peril'(by Lemony Snicket), and you would know what it means.

  • Catherine April 26, 2012, 7:02 pm

    Ha!! This reminds me of a scene from season 6 of Gilmore Girls:

    “COLIN: …we are planning the ultimate Life and Death Brigade event.
    FINN: Not only the ultimate, but the penultimate.
    COLIN: Penultimate means next to last, Finn. This is the last one.
    FINN: I thought it meant super-ultimate.”

  • Cat April 26, 2012, 8:29 pm

    Calli Avcale: it’s a common mistake to think that forty was well into middle-age at the time of Christ. The psalmist wrote that “Man’s span is seventy years, or eighty for those who are strong.” and that was long before Christ was born.
    Mary was able to be with the apostles at Pentecost and there is no biblical mention of her death even though she was well known by the followers of Christ. She was active in His ministry as were the other women who followed Him.
    Most people do not realize that “average life expectancy” does not mean the age at which most people died. Averages are skewed by extreme scores. The average age of death for two people, a newborn and a hundred year old person both of whom died at that age, is fifty years. Did either of them die at fifty?
    Until very recently, many people died in childhood. Childbirth took many: infections, appendictis, scarlett fever, colera, diarrhea, polio, measles,typhoid fever, flu,whooping cough, smallpox, animal attacks, accidents, et al took even more. Most of us have never seen these diseases because modern medicine has eradicated them from our society.
    Women commonly died in childbirth. It was not unusual for a man to have two or three wives over his lifetime. Men died in wars or in accidents. Step on a rusty nail and tetanus provided a horrible death.
    If you made it through all that, you had a nice, long life. St. John, the only apostle we believe did not suffer martyrdom, may have lived into his late nineties or even been one-hundred years old at his death.

  • Emily April 26, 2012, 9:21 pm

    The WORST in my opinion is the constant misuse of “myself” in regular and even professional speech.

    Orator: For more information you may speak with myself or one of the associates.

    No, actually, I can’t. The only person who can talk to yourself is you.

    It drives me crazy.

    I never understood what prompted this. Did we feel like it was selfish/egotistical to say “talk to me”?

  • Kate April 27, 2012, 3:58 am

    This reminded me strongly of a brilliant episode of the UK show ‘The IT Crowd’.

    One of the characters refers to putting women on a “peddle stool” instead of a pedestal. Her co-worker found it hilarious and made fun of her for ages. Later in the episode, he used the expression “damp squid” instead of “damp squib” and copped it from her for ages.

  • Niamhmcs April 27, 2012, 4:19 am

    My dad says “pacific” instead of specific, which drives me mad.
    My mum says “tiramisu” instead of “tsunami” which made me laugh a lot but when it became clear that she wasn’t going to be able to stop doing this, I just encouraged her to avoid the word altogether so as not to offend anyone that may have been affected by one.
    “I could care less” instead of “I couldn’t care less” drives me completely mental!

    I’m very curious about the correct use of oriented as a previous poster has mentioned. I would always have said “disoriented” at which point I’m usually corrected and told it’s “disorientated” which doesn’t sound right to me so I just stick with my own way. Is it that both are acceptable now?

  • airlinepass April 27, 2012, 9:21 am


    The title from Thursday’s story reminded me of those jolly comedians from the UK.

  • Hilary April 27, 2012, 9:57 am

    Here’s my favorite: “dethaw”. I’ve heard this used by well-educated people. If you “dethaw” something, wouldn’t you be freezing it?

  • Mojo April 27, 2012, 3:32 pm

    Nope, never heard ‘penultimate’ used incorrectly like that. Must be an American thing.

    I did have a boss who used to say “To all intensive purposes…” though. I corrected him the day I left.

  • splatman April 27, 2012, 6:24 pm

    Dethaw? My sis does that. Where is it at? I’ve read that squawk of an unnecessary “at” came from a sitcom; don’t remember the details. And then there’s those words and phrases that sound like opposites, but are not used as such: Priceless and worthless, Fat chance and slim chance. Second to none and slim to none.
    The phrases “Could care less” and “Couldn’t care less” I leave unused. There’s other ways to express the meaning of either one w/o the confusion. “I like it”/”I don’t like it” nips the confusion in the bud.
    And those pesky double negatives!
    And then there’s this peeve I’m surprised no one brought up already: Try and do it. Try what and do it?, I ask.
    And the mashup of none and noon: noone. Huh?

  • Cupcake April 28, 2012, 10:01 am

    Twik, decimate is my favourite too. When someone uses it incorrectly I love to say “oh, thank god only one tenth of it was destroyed!” – they usually don’t get it. (It has been pointed out that the dictionary now says ‘decimate’ can mean ‘to destroy a large portion’… I’d like to point out that many dictionary entries for the word ‘literally’ now list ‘figuratively’ as one of its meanings. It’s been misused so much that the incorrect use of the word has become an accepted use. To me, that doesn’t really make it right. When someone says they ‘literally died of shock’, I’m still going to say “OH MY GOD ARE YOU A GHOST?”, and when someone says ‘the whole city was decimated, nobody survived’ I’m still going to think they’re an idiot.)

    There seems to be a bit of confusion re: the actual meaning of penultimate. Yes, it means second-to-last, but only in the same sense that ultimate actually means last. It’s not last as in worst, but last as in final. Person A is the final authority on giraffes (there’s nobody better; after you ask him about giraffes there would be no need to speak to another person). Person B, who knows almost as much, is the penultimate authority, second only to the ultimate or final authority.

  • Smiling Charmer April 28, 2012, 11:56 am

    Penultimate means ‘next to last’ and not ‘second best’.

  • Miss Ann Thrope April 29, 2012, 2:49 pm

    Wink-N-Smile, I think you make excellent points about writing: “If you don’t know how to use a word, and you use it wrong, by all means avoid using it. But if you know it, and it is natural to you, editing it out for simpler language will only feel stilted and awkward, and that is never elegant.” A writer must first consider their audience. When I was in the miltary, I was taught to use simple and plain language to convey orders. Certain writings, such as written orders, were intended for people who did not possess higher education. This was not to patronize this audience, but to ensure their efficiency in stressful situations. Yet, an audience of fine literature has the right to expect elegant–whether complex or simple–writing. Elegance is not based the length of words, but how they are used. Malapropisms arise from placing emphasis on a word instead of the message. I think admin used certain words because she anticipated her audience would probably be well-educated and appreciate elegant–if not simple–writing. I believe that is a great compliment to her readers. P.S. I would love if you would share the poem with me.

  • Enna April 30, 2012, 4:04 am

    I tend to use the word “defrost”. Haven’t heard of dethaw before!

  • Robert April 30, 2012, 1:07 pm

    LOL! My wife’s two favorite words: penultimate and defenestration!

    I can’t tell you how happy I was when I read a news article about two would be armed robbers trying to hold up a bar during a Hells Angels club meeting. They were both thrown out windows so I got to relate the story to my wife about the criminal penultimate defenestration quickly followed by his partners unltimate defenestration.

  • Ann May 1, 2012, 3:50 pm

    However, if the pastor had meant to be funny, he would have been correct. Not to mention, funny.

    If God is “the last word”, as in the ultimate authority, then the visiting expert, was indeed, the penultimate authority. ; )

  • Amandah July 9, 2012, 9:30 pm

    Well…whether “penultimate” is an insult or not depends on the perspective, actually. For example, do we not say that someone is the “last” or “final authority” on something, meaning that they know more about it than anyone else? In that context, saying someone is the “penultimate” authority can mean close to the same thing. In the case of religion, it’s actually sort of appropriate as, as one would think a human cannot be the final authority of their religion (that would be their deity), but might just gain the position of “second final”. It’s a deep manipulation of the word, but then again, that’s the elegance of language.

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