A posting from a couple of months ago looked at the verb adamarse, based on dama ‘lady.’ Joseph Baretti’s Spanish-English dictionary of 1800 translated that reflexive verb as ‘to make or become finical, nice, dainty, or lady-like.’ Modern readers, like those in the 1800s, are likely to wonder what finical means.
Here’s how Noah Webster defined finical in his dictionary, which appeared three decades after Baretti’s:
1. Nice; spruce; foppish; pretending to a great nicety or superfluous elegance; as a finical fellow.
2. Affectedly nice or showy; as a finical dress.
A few generations after that, the wonderful Century Dictionary defined finical as ‘affecting great nicety or extreme elegance; overnice; unduly particular about trifles; fastidious.’ The dictionary went on to say that finical “applies to an overwrought delicacy of taste in manners, dress, and speech.”
While finical may be old-fashioned, the word remains in use. The online Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary gave as an example of usage “a newspaper who’s old-fashionedly finical about proper grammar.” Hmmm. So much for made-up sentences (and shouldn’t the who’s be that’s?). One great example—and a strongly worded one, I might add, for those who are finical about what they read and might wish to skip the next paragraph—comes from Act II of Shakespeare’s King Lear:
“A knave; a rascal; an eater of broken meats; base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave; a lily-livered, action-taking knave, a whoreson, glass-gazing, super-serviceable finical rogue; one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a bawd, in way of good service, and art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pandar, and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch: one whom I will beat into clamorous whining, if thou deniest the least syllable of thy addition.”
I hope you were fine with that. In fact, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, English probably created finical from fine. The shorter and much more familiar fine had come from the Old French cognate of Spanish fino, with both of those adjectives being derived from the noun fin ‘end.’ The idea was that something fino/fine had reached an “end state” of quality.
If English first expanded fine to finical, it then shortened finical to finick, a noun meaning ‘a finical person.’ From finick came the new adjective finicky, which remains more common than finical and finick.
© 2011 Steven Schwartzman