Ultima Thule: Part 2

Advertising for Apple II computer, 1977Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.

Advertising slogan for the Apple II computer (1977),
often hilariously misattributed to Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)


In my previous post about ultima Thule, I traced the strange history of the Greek name Thule, and how it came to be associated with the Latin adjective ultima, meaning “far” or “farthest”. In this post I’m going to write about the etymological associations of ultima.

Ultima is the feminine form of Latin ultimus, which was not only used to mean “farthest”, but also to convey related ideas like “last”, “latest” and “utmost”. As well as doing service in the name ultima Thule, ultima also appears in the rarely used Latin tag, ultima ratioliterally, “ultimate judgement”, but used with the meanings “final sanction” or “last resort”. It has also mutated into an English noun, ultima, a technical term for the final syllable of a word, derived as a shortened form of the Latin ultima syllaba.

Something ultimate is the final (and presumably best) version; it is an ultimity—and ultimacy is the state of being ultimate. The verb to ultimate means to carry something through to a final resolution; something ultimative tends to produce a final resolution; and ultimation is the process by which that final resolution is reached. An ultimatum is the final part of something—but it has come to mean the final position in an argument, beyond which no further negotiation is possible. Ultimogeniture is a mode of succession in which the inheritance goes to the last-born of a family—it’s the opposite of primogeniture, in which inheritance goes to the first-born.

The ablative case of ultimus is ultimo—so ultimo die means “in the last day”. To designate the last day of a particular month, English speakers took to writing a short form—”ultimo July” or “ultimo December”. But by the eighteenth century ultimo came to be understood as “in the most recent month”, and people would refer to “your letter dated 22nd ultimo“, meaning “the letter you wrote to me on the 22nd of last month”. That was often contracted farther to “yours of the 22nd ult.“—an expression that crops up in Victorian novels to generally confusing effect for the modern reader.

The penultima (from Latin pænultima, “almost ultimate”) is the second-last syllable of a word. In the days when the ultimo was the last day of a month, the penult was the second-last day. But now penult is used to designate the last-but-one member of any sequence—the penultimate member, in other words. The word penultimatum is humorously contrived, designating something that is either just short of being an ultimatum, or which immediately precedes an ultimatum.

The antepenultima is the third-last syllable of a word, and an antepenult is the antepenultimate member of any sequence—the third-last. And preantepenult and preantepenultimate do exactly the job you’d expect, designating things that are fourth-from-last.

And that’s my final word on ultima Thule.

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