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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.

Another reason people may be tempted into error is that so many things have been hyped as “the best,” “the most,” “the ultimate” and the like that these words have lost their power. So, it’s tempting to try to fortify them with modifiers -- for instance, “very,” “absolutely” and “ultra-.” This is a temptation to resist, because the result is even more likely to sound like hype than the plain, unvarnished boast would. And when the supposedly fortified word the person reaches for is “penultimate,” the result sounds ignorant too.

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.

But, Larry, the joke is on me -- or us. According to all the contemporary dictionaries I consulted, the subtle word “penultimate” continues to mean “next to last” and nothing but, while obvious old “podium” has come to mean “lectern” as well as “dais.” “Counter” isn’t yet among the definitions given, though I can see how the one meaning is likely to blur into the other.

You and I don’t have to use “podium” this way, and we’re free to entertain ourselves by pretending we don’t understand the other meanings (“I’m sorry, I don’t see a podium. Did you mean the counter?”), but the “lectern” meaning is now standard English.

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.

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