Who are you calling meticulous?

beset by small birdsMeticulous is probably the most popular self-advertising word for editors and proofreaders; funny that it should have been questionable, and even disreputable, in its time. As recently as the 1990s Kingsley Amis wrote that he wouldn’t use the word at all.

It comes from the Latin meticulosus, meaning ‘beset by small fears’; ‘it is the word for the timid hare, or the man who is gibbering with fear’, wrote Fowler in Modern English Usage, where he deplored its use as a synonym for scrupulous or punctilious. Properly, it should mean overscrupulous at best, and it is decidedly not something to boast of.

Does it matter? There comes a time when misuse becomes so common that it’s accepted. If your beautifully reasoned definition differs from that of nine-tenths of your fellows it avails you little. The time to shrug and walk whistling away from meticulous as it once was has long passed, even if we haven’t yet given up on rescuing, say, disinterested. The interest lies elsewhere; most of all, the new usage may tell us something about the psychological springs of punctiliousness, or what they are thought to be. Does love of accuracy come from fear? Are good editors and proofreaders beset by small fears? I’d say no, or not exactly, but more on that another time.

Paul Fishman (Bristol, May 2014)

Shorter Oxford English Dictionary Sixth Edition

meticulous /adjective. M16.

[ORIGIN from Latin meticulosus, from metus fear: see -ulous.]

†1 Fearful, timid. M16–L17.

2 Overcareful about minute details. Now also simply, careful, precise. E19.


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