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Word of the Week: ‘ultimatum’

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We take a closer look at the words and phrases that are trending online and in the media. This week: ‘ultimatum’.

It’s been a while since we’ve waded into the complex, fast-paced world of Brexit, so we’re diving straight back in this week – taking a closer look at the term ‘ultimatum’.  

As the Article 50 deadline fast approaches and politicians clash with one another, British prime minister Boris Johnson has threatened Conservative MPs with an ultimatum of ‘Back me or you’re fired’ – presumably while pointing an Alan Sugar-esque finger across the commons.

What is an ‘ultimatum’?

‘Ultimatum’, a noun, is defined as: “a threat in which a person or group of people are warned that if they do not do a particular thing, something unpleasant will happen to them.

“It is usually the last and most extreme in a series of actions to bring about a particular result.”

Or in simpler terms, “a final proposition, condition or demand”.

The word derives from the Latin ‘ultimatus’, meaning ‘final’, and developed into meaning a “final demand” by the 1730s.

However, in the 1800s the term took a more juvenile direction, being used as slang for ‘the buttocks’ – simply because the word refers to ‘the end’. Makes sense, sort of, right?

This only contrasts with the Urban Dictionary’s lacklustre, and uncharacteristically straightforward, definition of: “choosing between two things”.

One online dictionary points out that: “an ultimatum is usually issued by a stronger power to a weaker one, since it wouldn’t carry much weight if the one giving the ultimatum couldn’t back up its threat.”

Ultimatums in history

Boris’ ultimatum comes as we mark 80 years since Britain declared war on Nazi Germany, after the British government delivered an ‘ultimatum’ to Adolf Hitler. Their instructions to withdraw troops from Poland were ignored, and World War Two broke out not long after.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Twitter is awash with references to the ultimatum that led to the events that would tear Europe apart.

Wherever you sit on the issues currently engulfing British politics, it’s probably fair to say the whole thing is proving a right old pain in the ‘ultimatum’.

Roisin McCormack