September 24th, 2008
Penultimate / podium / albeit
by Barbara Wallraff
Helga Grodzinski, of Kingston, Ontario, writes: “Here is a frequently misused word, the misuse of which is beginning to annoy me: ‘penultimate.’ Of course, it means ‘next to last,’ but many people use it in the sense of ‘more than ultimate,’ which makes no sense at all! Could you please help me in my mission to restore this word to its correct usage?”
Dear Helga: I’ll do what I can. In fact, I’m doing it right now. This mistake bugs me too. People make it because they’re unfamiliar with the Latin prefix “pene-,” meaning “almost.” No wonder. It turns up in only one other fairly common English word: “peninsula,” which means “an almost-island.” Other “pen-” words, like “pencil,” “penetrate,” “penguin,” “penitentiary” and “pentagon,” have different roots and unrelated meanings.
Larry Moran, of Auburn Hills, Mich., writes: “The use of the word ‘podium’ confuses me. Airline personnel invite me to come to the ‘podium’ to verify my seat. It looks like a counter to me. In other contexts, ‘podium’ is used instead of ‘lectern.’ Am I the only one annoyed by this, or have these usages become correct?”
Dear Larry: Although I’m sympathetic to people who don’t realize that “pene-” means “almost,” I think we’re all supposed to know, at least vaguely, that “pod-,” from Latin and Greek, has to do with feet. (Hence words like “podiatry” and “tripod.”) Anyone who considers that fact should have no trouble remembering forever after that a “podium” is supposed to be a platform that people stand on, rather than the reading desk or counter they stand behind.
Alexandra List, of La Mesa, Calif., writes: “What is the plural of ‘albeit’? ‘Albethey’? Or is there no plural?”
Dear Alexandra: “Albeit,” meaning “although,” is a shortening of “all be it,” which was itself a shortening of “although it be (that).” It became fixed in form hundreds of years ago and doesn’t have a plural. In Middle English, however, people also said “albe,” without "it.” And if you wanted a past tense, that was “all were it.”
© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.