Fearful Care and Careful Fear

H.W. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (s.v. ‘meticulous’)

meticulous. What is the strange charm that at one time made this wicked word irresistible to the British journalist? Did he like its length? Did he pity its isolation (for it has no kindred in England)? Could a Latin scholar like him not get meticulous out of his head? Could so accomplished a Frenchman never be sure whether meticuleux or m. was the word he knew so well? Or what was it? It is clear, first, that the word is not a piece of latinity that cannot be forgotten. ‘Ante- and post-classical’ say Lewis and Short: that is, you may read your Cicero and Virgil and Horace and Livy through and never meet it, and when it is unearthed in Plautus or somewhere it means not what the journalists made it mean, but just frightened. It is the word for the timid hare, or the man who is gibbering with fear (Nullust hoc meticulosus aeque… Perii, pruriunt dentes – Was ever man in such a funk? … Lord, how my teeth chatter!).

Some centuries ago m. had that meaning, comprehensible enough through the Latin metus (fear) to all who have learnt any Latin, but not to others, since metus by some odd chance has given no common words in English. But the word died out, and when it was resuscitated in the 19th c., it was given a new sense for which it was not in the least needed, and freely used as an unwanted synonym for careful, exact, punctilious, scrupulous, precise, etc.

It would be idle to try to put it back into an etymological strait-jacket and to apply it only to the care that has its origin in terror of being caught breaking rules or misstating facts, but if it is to escape the reproach of being a SUPERFLUOUS WORD it should at least be confined to a degree of care, not necessarily excessive or fussy – we have pernickety for that – but greater than what is implied by punctilious or scrupulous.

The first of the two examples that follow illustrates the legitimate use; the second is ludicrous in that it excludes not merely the idea of great care but even that of any care at all. Gone is the wealth of m. detail with which he loved to elaborate his finely finished pictures. / Mr. —-, who has succumbed to the wounds inflicted upon him ten days previously by a pet lion, had his fate foretold with m. accuracy more than 2000 years ago by the greatest Greek dramatists.

One thought on “Fearful Care and Careful Fear

  1. . . . “Chi controlla la paura delle persone, diventa il padrone delle loro anime”.
    – Niccolò Machiavelli

    . . . Pedro Almodóvar sigue haciendo películas que sorprenden
    Construyó su reputación con comedias atrevidas. Pero en su nueva película, “Madres paralelas”, este hombre de 72 años desentierra la historia más dolorosa de su país…


    ………….. Io mi fermo qui …
    Giovanni Sollima – L’invenzione del Nero + Violoncello per Satie

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