Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Bathroom Monologue: The Pen is Mightier than the Ultimate

“Penultimate” is a funny word. It means “second-to-last,” which is a neat little utility word. You see, “ultimate” means “last.” That we use it to indicate “best” is a testament to our faith in happy endings, or the power of car commercials. One or the other. Yet if “ultimate” means “last,” and “penultimate” means “second-to-last,” then what does “pen” mean? We know it can mean a pointy or felt-tipped think from which we dispense ink to write checks and essays about Apartheid before the end of class. But this can’t be the only meaning if it turns “last” into “second-to-last.” It’s got to mean something like “right before.” We don’t see it in other places. Taking a girl out to dinner and a movie isn’t “pensex.” In fact seconds after coming into usage, “pensex” would probably mean something far different. “Pen” seems to play this prefix utility almost exclusively for “ultimate,” as though the pen exists to keep us a little further away from the end. Maybe that’s why it’s so intimidating to write first lines, and why so few books finish – the pen is cursed. Maybe the pen is trying to keep us from the real ultimate – from obliterating each other, through forcing us to think things through, cross out and temper our words. Maybe that’s why polemics are increasing in number and popularity since the keyboard has trumped the pen. “Penultimate” is a prettier word than “keyboardultimate,” not the least because one’s looking out for us, and where we’re going.


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