pêngk-ti-li-ês • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Adjective
Meaning: 1. Showing precise concern for proper behavior, very closely observant of even the smallest details of social conventions. 2. More broadly, observant of the fine points of any activity.
Notes: Punctilious originally referred to an awareness of the punctilios (fine points) of the rules of proper conduct. However, a punctilio is today any fine point so the meaning of the adjective is broadening, too. A punctilious person is not quite scrupulous; scrupulous implies moral precision. A person who is sensitive to fine points in general is meticulous.
In Play: Let's begin with an example that shows the difference between meticulous and punctilious: "Lois Riske is as punctilious in her manners at home as she is meticulous in her work at the office." Because we have so many near synonyms, we probably should restrict the use of today's Good Word to situations where rules of behavior are involved: "Justin Case is so punctilious in omitting frolicky folks from his invitation list that his parties are all a right bore."
Word History: Today's Good Word apparently came from a Vulgar (spoken) Latin word that became French pointilleux and Italian puntiglioso, though we have no written example of it. It would have come from Classical Latin punctus, the past participle of the verb pungere "to poke, to prick". The neuter form of this participle came to be used as a noun, punctum "point, dot". Now, dots and points are historically related to precision. Even today we say, "to arrive on the dot" and "get to the point", implying precision. The remains of this same root are evident in borrowed words like pugilist, pugnacious, and impugn, based on Latin pugnare "to fight". Finally, the word pygmy comes to us from the related Greek word pygme "fist".
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