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. This word is sometimes confused with punctual. Punctual refers to people who are always on time. The most common noun from this adjective is punctiliousness, though punctiliosity has been used as late as 1919.
In Play: This Good Word is most commonly used to refer to someone who is attentive to the finer points of almost anything: "The PBS series Downton Abbey is known for its punctilious attention to all the mores of the era it recreates." It may be used to refer to too much attention to detail: "Rhoda Book's latest novel has such a punctilious list of every detail of each character that it becomes prolix.
Word History: This word was borrowed from Italian puntiglioso "punctilious" from puntiglio "obstinancy, stubbornness", which Italian borrowed from Spanish puntillo "exaggerated sense of honor". The Spanish word came from Latin punctillum "fine point, dot, spot", the diminutive of punctum "point, dot, spot". This word is the past participle of pungere "to prick", inherited from nasalized form of the PIE root peuk- "to prick". It arrived in English as the tool, a punch, and the verb pounce, which was at one time associated with avian predators whose pounce is accompanied by piercing of claws. Without the Fickle N, it went into the making of Latin pugnus "fist", which we see in the English borrowings pugnacious and pugilism. Finally, the word pygmy comes to us via the related Greek word pygme "fist".
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