Column: Getting in the next-to-last word


By Curtis Honeycutt

If a potato can become vodka, then you can become a bonafide word nerd. The tools and tips I give you are meant to be used for good; please don’t gloat your grammar greatness over anyone; rather, use it to lift everyone up. I’m about to share a word with you that will make everyone at the white tie-optional gala assume you’re the king or queen of some distant, exotic land. Use this word ,and upper-crusters will begin consulting with you before they order their newest monocle. They’ll picture you eating peeled champagne grapes while you brush the golden mane of your award-winning miniature pony named Lord Anponio.

I’m talking about the word “penultimate.” Although this sounds like a million-dollar word, it simply means “next-to-last” or “second-to-last.” It’s as simple as that. So, if you ate the “penultimate Oreo,” that would mean you ate the next-to-last Oreo in the package. If you are reading the 19th chapter in a 20-chapter book, you are reading the book’s penultimate chapter. If you use the penultimate square of toilet paper, it’s time to install a new roll so the next person isn’t stuck with one lonely square.

Allow me to put on my horn-rimmed grammar nerd glasses for a second. The term “penult” is a noun that means the next-to-last syllable in a word. The penult in the word “automobile” is “mo.” Now you know that!

Certainly, I’m not going to up the ante and share an even nerdier-yet-related word, am I?

Yes, I am: antepenultimate. Antepenultimate refers to the third to last item in a series, or the next-to-next-to-last thing. Going back to our 20-chapter book: If Chapter 19 is the penultimate chapter, that means Chapter 18 is the antepenultimate chapter. If we break down the Latin meanings for each part of the word, we’d get “before” (ante) “almost” (pen) and “last” (ultimate). Antepenultimate is the thing that comes before the almost last thing.

Drop any of these words into casual conversation and your friends will offer you the finest bottle out of their wine cellars. Horse & Hound magazine (my favorite magazine about both dogs and horses) will call to request an in-depth interview about your dressage training techniques. Yes, my friends, if the humble potato can become vodka, then you, too, can achieve the high status of grammar guru. I believe in you. It’s time to go out there and dominate the English language.