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Is it fine to be finicky?

Henry Watson Fowler
By Jim Stasiowski

If I call you “a meticulous journalist,” will you smile or slug me?

To me, “meticulous” means extremely careful, being certain each step is researched and considered thoroughly. Meticulous reporters and editors deserve raises.

Jim Stasiowski

The Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fifth Edition, recognized by the Associated Press Stylebook as the authority, mostly agrees, but adds ominous nuances: “extremely or excessively careful about details; scrupulous or finicky.”

According to Webster’s, “meticulous” is derived from the Latin “meticulosus,” meaning “fearful, and “metus,” meaning “fear.”

How do we go from “fearful” to “extremely … careful about details”?

I usually focus on how to make your reporting and writing better, but I’m reading a biography of Charles Darwin – yeah, that natural-selection guy, not the pinball-machine repairman – so I’m at the moment captivated by evolution.

In 1926, Henry Watson Fowler, an Englishman whose obsession with the language must have made him an extremely cranky dinner-party guest, published the first “A Dictionary of Modern English Usage,” known now by the shorthand name “Fowler’s.”

I own a reprinted version of that first edition. The frontispiece declares the book was reprinted 17 times, the last in 1959. Two of the reprints – in 1930 and 1937 – included “corrections,” so it’s impossible to tell whether the volume I have (it once belonged to “Miss Kay Huffman,” according to her prim cursive signature) has H.W.’s original opinion of “meticulous,” but considering the vituperation in the entry, I’m going to stick with my theory that only an obsessed Englishman raised to take on faith the God-bestowed invincibility of the British Empire could be so amusingly arch:

What is the strange charm that makes this wicked word irresistible to the British journalist? … (I)t means not what the journalists make it mean, but just “frightened”; it is the word for the timid hare, or the man who is gibbering with fear … the word died out. When it was resuscitated in the nineteenth century, it was by the literary critics with a new sense for which it was not in the least needed, “scrupulous” & “punctilious” being amply sufficient … The question is whether we are going to allow the word to be imposed upon us for general use, now that the journalist of the daily papers has caught it up from the literary critic.

Although I’m sorely tempted, I shall skip my heartfelt “Harrumph!” about his scorn for “the daily papers”; instead, let’s trace how “meticulous” evolved from H.W.’s acidulous 1926 defense of the original meaning.

In 1965, Theodore M. Bernstein, onetime emperor of style at The New York Times, wrote in his book “The Careful Writer”: “The word does not mean careful or even very careful. … ‘(M)eticulous’ means timorously careful or overcareful.  The misuses, arising from a desire to use the fancy word, are common.”

But a year later, “Modern American Usage,” a work attributed to Wilson Follett, rebutted the imperious Bernstein: “‘(M)eticulous’ has lost its overtone of fear and come to seem the right word for ‘exceedingly careful.’”

In 1968, S.I. Hayakawa’s “Use the Right Word: Modern Guide to Synonyms” backed Bernstein: “‘Meticulous’ suggests an almost finicky concern, often about trivial matters, based on a fear of making an error.”

But while “fear” was fading, the criticism represented by “exceedingly” in Follett and “finicky” in Hayakawa was emerging.

In a 1980 version of “American Usage and Style: The Consensus,” revered wordsmith Roy H. Copperud cited Bernstein’s interpretation that “meticulous” meant “care prompted by timidity or fear,” but then noted that dictionaries either ruled “the connotation of timidity obsolete” or simply left out that meaning. “The consensus,” Copperud wrote, “is overwhelming that the word now means ‘painstaking, fussy,’ and may have a positive as well as a faintly disparaging sense.”

How, I must ask, can we reconcile “fussy” with “positive,” and “positive” with “faintly disparaging”?

Even the original sense dies hard, if you pay attention to the entry for “meticulous” in the 1994 edition of “Usage and Abusage”: “(P)roperly it implies excess of care and an overscrupulousness caused by timidity; but the modern favourable sense is appropriate everywhere except in the most formal writing.”

Pure pussyfooting.

By 1996, with H.W. Fowler insulated (by his 1933 death) against such apostasy, the Third Edition of Fowler’s surrendered: “(T)he word is now routinely used to mean ‘careful, punctilious, scrupulous, precise.’ It is a useful word.”

But Fowler’s’ backtracking – the same conclusions are in 2015’s Fourth Edition – wasn’t the final word. Witty, erudite Bill Bryson in 2002 published “Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words,” in which he says, “Several usage books, though fewer and fewer dictionaries, insist (meticulous) does not mean merely very careful, but rather excessively so. Correctly used, it has a pejorative tone. … (U)nless you mean to convey a negative quality, it is usually better to use ‘scrupulous,’ ‘careful,’ ‘painstaking,’ or some other synonym.”

Bryson deserves the last laugh: “Meticulous today is so often misused by respected writers … that to object is itself perhaps a somewhat meticulous act.”

Writing coach Jim Stasiowski welcomes your questions or comments. Call him at (775) 354-2872 or write to 2499 Ivory Ann Drive, Sparks, Nev. 89436.

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