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Punctilio

Definition: A fine point. A detail (of etiquette).

Pronunciation: Punk-till-e-o

Origin: Entered into English from Italian c. 1600 – from Punctiglio, a diminutive of Punto, meaning a ‘point’. Literally, a ‘little point’. Also from the Latin Punctum, meaning ‘point’.

Why this word?

A vast swathe of English words have direct Latin antecedent – but Punctilio is somewhat more unusual in that it has been borrowed not from Latin, but from Italian. Italians are famous for the hand gesticulations that accompany their words – and, indeed, one can visualise Punctilio being used by someone looking one-eyed through the narrowing gap between their index finger and thumb as they bring attention to a small point of detail.

In America, this word is used most commonly to describe the requirement of trust in the relationship between two parties linked in a financial venture. The code that they must live up to is known as the Punctilio of Honor. This stems from a famous judgement in a financial case that ended up before the New York courts in 1928 (Meinhard Vs. Salmon). In his ruling, Judge Cardozo stated that:

“A trustee is held to something stricter than the morals of the market place. Not honesty alone, but the punctilio of an honor the most sensitive, is then the standard of behaviour… the level of conduct for fiduciaries [has] been kept at a level higher than that trodden by the crowd.”

How and when to use this word in a sentence:

This word is instantly recognisable even by those that have never heard it before. There is no reason why it shouldn’t be in everyday use. The next time you’re at ‘that’ meeting and you need to draw attention to ‘that’ finer point that you think everyone else has missed – don’t be bashful. Tell them that, before they move on, you’d like to draw their attention to one little punctilio of detail …

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Written by Sean Carabini

Seán Carabini is a Dublin-based author. To date, Seán has written the humorous travel memoirs 'Sticking Out in Minnesota' and 'American Road', as well as 'American Road: The poems' - a book of travel poetry related to the memoir. Seán has also developed a podcast based on the book - subscribe to the American Road podcast today! Seán is a committee member of the Irish Writers' Union.

Chrissy Skelton is Seán Carabini's editor. A graduate of the University of Minnesota's Anthropology programme, Chrissy emerged armed with an arsenal of little-known words and cumbersome jargon - all of which will now be off-loaded onto 'unusedwords' readers!

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