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WORDS: Punctual

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.