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Better late than never

‘Punctuality is the virtue of the bored’ said Evelyn Waugh. Is there any point in being punctual? Yes, actually there is, since they both come from Latin punctus ‘pricking’. Punctual used to mean attentive to points of detail, a meaning now carried by punctilious. Punctuation is all about inserting points in a text to indicate pauses, while a puncture is an obvious piercing.

Pungent comes from the present participle (pungens –entem, ‘pricking’) as does poignant (via French), but these no longer overlap in meaning since the latter is confined these days to painful feelings while the former is mostly used of sharp smells. More difficult to explain is expunge (‘erase, wipe out’), but in Latin it was used for marking a list with a point to indicate a payment of debt or the like and the consequent erasure from the list. If you show no compunction, nothing pricks your conscience – and you might as well be late.

But be warned, there are more obscure derivations via Romance languages – books overdue and a librarian may pounce (which once signified a talon, then the action of the bird of prey) or in less civilised company you may be punched. Get the point? 

About the author

Alan Beale

Alan Beale is a member of The Lit & Phil and runs one of our regular Latin classes.

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