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I have noticed that the words ultima and proxima are rarely used.

How do native speakers use these?

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    I notice you asked about spoken language, as if you've seen these used in written. I've never seen them used as normal words in written English. Any chance you've confused them with the similar words "ultimate" and "proximate"? – Dan Getz Mar 17 at 15:57
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"Ultimate", "penultimate", "proximate", and "approximate" are English words.

"Ultimate" is common, partly because it is used in advertising.

"Penultimate" is less common than "ultimate", partly because nobody wants to advertise that their product is second-best.

"Approximate" is common, both as an adjective and as a verb. The adjective "approximate" is more formal than the adjective "rough"; the verb "approximate" is more formal than "make a careful guess" or "come close to".

"Proximate" is not very common. Both "penultimate" and "proximate" are sometimes used by educated writers.

Ultima and proxima are so rare that they might as well still be Latin words. Until I looked them up just now, I had no idea that ultima specifically referred to the last syllable in a word, instead of generally the "furthest out" thing in a group of things. The most common use of ultima is in the title of the on-line game Ultima Online. The most common use of proxima is in the name of the second-closest star to the Earth, Proxima Centauri.

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    I would argue that the spell Ultima across the Final Fantasy and related game series is at least as common/well known as the Ultima game series at this point. – Xavon_Wrentaile Mar 18 at 0:11
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    @Xavon_Wrentaile: That depends on one's particular subculture. I know ultima from the name "Ultima Thule" in astronomy & history, but nothing about on-line games/ – jamesqf Mar 18 at 4:59
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    I suspect penultimate is more often used incorrectly (as an intensified form of ultimate) than correctly. – RemcoGerlich Mar 18 at 8:29
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    @AaronF: typo: it's antepenultimate. – Steve Melnikoff Mar 18 at 11:00
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    Penultimate doesn't mean "second best", but rather, "next to last" – Chad Mar 18 at 15:48
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Those both exist as words in English, but with very specialised meanings or very infrequent use. These relate to their meanings in Latin, which are reflected in modern Spanish (and possibly Portuguese, too), albeit with accents on some letters.

Ultima is used in specialised situations to refer to the last syllable of a word.

Proximo, the nearest any attested English word comes to proxima without being a proper noun, is a little-known term that means "of (the) next month", for example "on the 3rd proximo" means "on the third day of next month". Ultimo is correspondingly used (or not) for the previous month.

These are both rather obscure words and most people are not familiar with them. I only know what they mean now because I thought I should look them up before saying "those are not English words".

Don't use them. Well, use ultima if you're in the sort of context where other people use it. Don't use it otherwise, and basically no-one uses proxima unless they're trying to show off their expansive vocabulary.

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    I looked them up and didn't find them in a couple of dictionaries. I should have checked some others before saying "those are not English words". – Gustavson Mar 17 at 15:13
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    No, they are extremely common. – Gustavson Mar 17 at 15:38
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    SamBC, when I was a boy in Britain, a certain way of writing routine business letters was in its death throes, but still lingering on in places. 'yours of the 14th ultimo” meant "your letter dated the 14th of last month". As well as that you had "instant" (this month), and "proximo" (next month), usually abbreviated to e.g. the 14th ult., 23 inst., and 3rd prox. I am told they linger in India. – Michael Harvey Mar 17 at 16:49
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    @MichaelHarvey Indian English is a very different language from British English, and has retained many words that were common before the end of the Indian Empire but now obsolete in BrE - just like American English has retained many words from before the Declaration of Independence :) – alephzero Mar 17 at 18:42
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    I have seen pre-printed response forms which say something like "Dear M_ _______, Thank you for your esteemed favour of _______ ult/inst. We hope to be able to reply soon. Yours faithfully ____________ per pro Company Name Ltd. A clerk would enter and strike out where necessary. Dying out in the 1940s I dare say. – Michael Harvey Mar 17 at 20:44
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I have noticed that the words ultima and proxima is rarely used.

How native speakers use these?

I know from my knowledge of classical Latin and of Spanish that these words mean 'last' and 'next' respectively.

How do native speakers use these? They don't. I have never used or heard or read these words in English.

Edit 1

I see from @SamBC that these words appear in English dictionaries with very specialised meanings. I didn't know those meanings and I will not make any attempt to remember them.

Edit 2

It occurs to me that astronomers use 'proxima' as in Proxima Centauri, a red dwarf star, in the constellation of Centaurus. This is however the name of the star and is not used in general conversation by most people unless they happening to be discussing that particular celestial body.

  • +1. They are very common in my language too. – Lucian Sava Mar 17 at 15:24
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    Also, "Ultima" is the name of a series of computer games, from back in the day. – SamBC Mar 17 at 15:43
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In 18th and 19th century business correspondence, these words, invariably abbreviated as "Ult." and "Prox." were often used to mean mean 'of the last month" and "of the next month". Such a letter might run:

In your favor of the 19th ult., you proposed delivery on the 20th prox. The supplies are needed by the 10th prox. at the latest.

(Here "favor" was a polite term for "letter addressed to me" now also obsolete.)

I have not seen this usage in any document later than about 1920, and rarely in any later than 1880. Currently I see them only in historical fiction of that period, or in the star name Proxima Centauri mentioned in other answers.

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    I suspect these are not English, but abbreviations for Latin terms, like et. al. or etc. – jamesqf Mar 17 at 17:49
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    @jamesqf They probably were, in origin at least. But then i would class "etc" and "etcetera" as fully absorbed into English, as i would "I.e." and "e.g." Of course latinisms were more common in English usage at that period than they are now. – David Siegel Mar 17 at 17:59
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    There was also "inst." for "of this month", which may be slightly better known than the other two. They crop up from time to time in golden age crime fiction, which is where I've seen them. – Especially Lime Mar 17 at 19:32
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    Reginald Perrin (title character of a sitcom, 1976–79) used “ult.” in dictating letters (at least in the first series). – Anton Sherwood Mar 18 at 3:13
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    I remember Reginald Perrin, but had forgotten his use of "ult." But then he was supposed to be stuffy and old-fashioned, at least at the start of his character arc. – David Siegel Mar 18 at 4:39
5

Both terms are very solidly examples of jargon (in any sense of the term actually, depending on the context).


Ultima

'ultima' could be:

  • A linguistics term, with the exact single meaning listed in both the OED and Webster's.
  • The name of a video game series.
  • The name of a spell in the Final Fantasy video games.
  • Part of the name of any of a couple of astronomical objects (Ultima Thule being the trivial example).
  • Possibly used as part of other terminology in a different field of science, engineering, or mathematics.

There are a handful of other words in English with varying meanings that are derived from the same Latin root as 'ultima':

  • 'Ultimate': Pretty widely used in advertising and branding. Refers to the absolute best version, form, or iteration of something.
  • 'Penultimate': Not very widely used outside of academic settings. Refers to the second-to last instance of something.
  • 'Ultimatum': Contextually common. Used to refer to a truly final offer in negotiations (or similar situations), typically one which if rejected will immediately end negotiations.

There are probably others I've missed.


Proxima

I've actually not found any definition searching online for this other than the use in astronomy as a clip form of the name of the star Proxima Centauri (MWD doesn't list it, I don't have an OED subscription so I can't check there, dictionary.com lists the astronomy use, and everywhere else I've checked matches either MWD or dictionary.com). I've not seen it used for any other purpose either (unlike 'ultima', which I've seen multiple times before).

There are, however, also a number of other English words derived from the same Latin root:

  • 'Proximal': Used mostly in scientific settings, especially biology and medicine. Usually used as an antonym to 'distal', occasionally as a synonym for 'proximate'.
  • 'Proximate': Also mostly in scientific settings, referring to an object or event that directly follows or precedes a specific reference point in a sequence.
  • 'Proximo': Rarely used except in prose. This is a direct clip of the Latin phrase 'proximo mense', literally 'in the next month', and retains the same meaning.
  • 'Approximate': Widely used in mathematics and science, as well as some usage in general speech in it's various forms. All forms ultimately are variants on the noun 'approximation', and refer to something being close to some other reference point (usually a correct answer to a problem).

I've probably also missed some here too.

  • 1
    Proxima is used in nearly the Latin sense in medicine. Proximal vs. Distal refer to proximity to the heart, so the distal joint in a finger is the tip, while the proximal one would be the one connecting it to the hand. Pretty sure ultima sees use, too. MDs overtly adopted Latin for jargon. – The Nate Mar 18 at 18:59
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Ultima Thule and Proxima Centauri are English in the same way that Jupiter or Homo Sapiens are English.

They are familiar scientific names for specific things, and would be recognised as such by an English speaker, but they are not English words in and of themselves.

Most astromomical names are derived from Greek, Latin or other ancient languages and are explicitly not English because they are intended for international use.

In the case of the two words you asked about, "Ultima" and "Promima" do apparently exist in English language dictionaries as words, but are not in common useage as stand-alone words and where they are used, the meanings of those words in English are not the same as the Latin meanings intended by the astronomical names.

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As a native English speaker, I have never heard those words use "in the wild", except under the following contexts:

Ultima:

Proxima:

While you might find some definitions for them in some dictionaries that say otherwise, the words don't really have any general meaning on their own for the common English speaker.

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    "In classical and medieval literature, ultima Thule (Latin "farthermost Thule") acquired a metaphorical meaning of any distant place located beyond the "borders of the known world"" (see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thule) this is the primary meaning of "Ultima Thule " in english – David Siegel Mar 18 at 15:36
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    @DavidSiegel - Perhaps to you. I've never heard it used that way (hmmmm...OK. I've lived a long literate life, so "never" is strong. I think I read one work of SF once that made reference to that meaning in a place name, just like the Astronomers did with their Trans-Neptunian Object.) There are probably folks walking around who feel as you do, but I'd wager far more don't know that and just know it as something Astronomers mention sometimes, and both groups are dwarfed by people who'd have no idea at all. – T.E.D. Mar 18 at 15:48
  • I will freely grant that most English speakers have probably never heard of Ultima Thule in any sense. And it does seem that recent web mentions focus on the astronomical object (which i had never heard of before this question came up)., But I read many mentions of "Ultima Thule" as "a place beyond all other places" or as a metaphor for 'the frozen north' decades ago. An entire chapter of Avram Davidson's Adventures in Unhistory deals with the long history of this term and the concepts behind it. – David Siegel Mar 18 at 17:02
  • I assume that the astronomical meaning of "Ultima Thule" was derived from the older meaning described by @DavidSiegel. – Andreas Blass Mar 19 at 22:50

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