Imagine the New York City Marathon. The race kicks off with a bang! The runners sprint outward, some to prove they are the best, others just to prove they can do it.
Around two and a half hours later, the first runner crosses the finish line, arms raised in victory, beads of sweat, mixed with tears, roll down their cheeks.
That person is not the penultimate. Not even close.
Twenty minutes later the second-place winner runs up, grin wide on their face. They’re not the penultimate either. They are closer, but still a long ways off.
About eight and a half hours later, 45,000 people have crossed the finish line. None of them were the penultimate either.
Eleven hours later, it’s dark, nearly everyone has gone home, but one enduring individual is pushing themselves hard to achieve a personal goal.. They know everyone else has already finished the race. They know they are dead last. But they refuse to give up. They refuse to admit they couldn’t reach the finish line. Finally, slowly, deliberately, to the sound of a smattering of applause and shouts of encouragement, they stumble across that line and fulfill their life-long goal of running the New York City Marathon.
Guess what? That person wasn’t the penultimate either.
The penultimate was the person who crossed the line an hour earlier. The second to last person to finish.
That’s what penultimate means. Second to last.
It doesn’t mean the best or even second best. It doesn’t mean the worst or second from worst. There is no connotation of value prescribed to this word.
You can also think of it as next-to-last. Or “there is only one model newer,” or “middle film in the trilogy.” But it doesn’t mean ultimate, supreme, best, or hardly any of the other things most people think it means.
This confusion seems to come from the duality of the meaning of the word ultimate. While ultimate means last, it also means something along the lines of best. Probably because in contest situations, like, oh, I don’t know, things that happen in coliseums with swords, the last one is the best.
So the final standing swordsman (or swordswoman) is the ultimate, and the one lying in the pool of blood at their feet is the penultimate.
The next time you try to convince me your character and their weapons can’t be defeated because they are the penultimate warrior with the penultimate equipment, remember; what you’re actually telling me is they are second best and armed with last year’s models of weapons.
You can find more tidbits in my book on self-editing, Blood From Your Own Pen!