WORDS: Punctual

Share
Related Topics
THE RAILWAYS got another slap on the wrist when it was revealed by the relevant watchdog that their trains are even less punctual than they say they are. Or as the Daily Telegraph inelegantly put it, "punctuality standards have fallen below pre-privatisation levels".

This is the sort of ugly writing that you never find in the tabloids, which, whatever their shortcomings in other directions, always insist that their journalists write in nice plain English. The Telegraph's story would have lost nothing in dignity or truth if it had said that "more trains are being delayed", which is in fact what the Daily Mail's reporter wrote. "Fallen below pre- privatisation levels" is vile businessese.

But that's by the way. Punctuality is not what it used to be, and I'm not thinking here of what the Telegraph would presumably call "low timekeeping levels". I mean that the word itself is different. When we first started using it in the 17th century, it didn't have much to do with time. It was more about precision, in the general sense.

Punctual had come from the Latin punctum, a point, which in turn came from pungere which meant to prick and also gave us puncture and pungent. A surgeon who wanted to make a neat hole in one of his patients would call for a punctual instrument. A tool like that could point to the exact place, so the word was naturally applied to the place itself as well as what pointed to it. When Milton in Paradise Lost called the earth "this punctual spot" his readers would immediately see it as a tiny speck in the immensity of the universe. Meanwhile you could punctuate a piece of writing by inserting a point, so here was a handy word for the grammarians.

Puncture was a surgeons' word from the start, while lovelorn poets might borrow it for a smart metaphor about the punctured heart. It was only when the cycling craze took off that it transferred itself to the pneumatic tyre: a mixed blessing in those early days, as we see from the voluminous diaries of Arthur Benson, author of Land of Hope and Glory, who was often being held up on the road. Benson used the intransitive form of the verb: "Miss Meredith punctured" he would write, giving us who read him now a bizarre picture of the fair rider shrivelling up with a hiss of escaping air.

Anyway, as I say, some centuries were to pass before punctuality simply meant arriving on time. It was more likely to mean what is now called punctiliousness, or observing the niceties. If someone was said to have done something punctually, the odds were that they had been so scrupulous about it that it was done late. The earliest example of the current meaning given in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Sheridan, one of whose characters has a cheap crack about punctuality being "an unfashionable custom among ladies".

I suppose the change came about when nearly everyone started carrying watches. Before that we were a bit like the 17th-century Ottoman Empire. It is said to have been so uninterested in time that it had only one clock.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Marketing Executive, London

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Charter Selection: This highly prestigious luxury b...

C++ Software Developer / Image Processing / 3D Visualisation

£45,000 to £55,000: IT Connections Ltd: C++ Software Developer / Image Process...

Java / J2EE Developer / Agile / Linux

£30,000 to £40,000: IT Connections Ltd: Java / J2EE Developer / Agile / Linux ...

Software Development Manager / Java / J2EE

£45,000 to £55,000: IT Connections Ltd: Software Development Manager / Java / ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Prince George's birthday is a pleasant distraction, but the monarchy still makes me feel uneasy

Simon Kelner
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

20 best days out for the summer holidays

From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

All the wood’s a stage

Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

Self-preservation society

Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor