By Dr Oliver Tearle
The word ‘scrupulous’ has an interesting though somewhat mysterious origin. A scruple was originally a small weight or measurement, the word being derived from the Latin scrūpulum, which itself originally meant ‘small pebble’. The word scruple came to mean ‘a worry’ because the Roman author Cicero likened a nagging problem to a small, sharp stone stuck in one’s shoe, i.e., a source of constant, niggling anxiety. At least, that’s how we think the word ‘scruple’ came to have its more familiar meaning.
As for scrupulous, that denotes someone who is troubled by doubts or worries over something, and whose conscience is bothered by some aspect of an undertaking. Curiously, the earliest citation for ‘scrupulous’ given in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is from King Henry VIII, in 1528: ‘Whiche thinge … ingendred such a scrupilous doubt in me, that my mind was incontinently accombred, vexed, and disquyeted.’
What other ways are there of describing a scrupulous attitude or cast of mind? Let’s take a look at some of the best synonyms for scrupulous and explore their origins and meanings.
One of the commonest synonyms for scrupulous is PUNCTILIOUS, a word derived ultimately from the Latin punctum meaning ‘point’ (the same root also gives us puncture). This is because a punctilious person is attentive to every point of procedure.
METICULOUS has a very similar meaning. It’s derived ultimately from the Latin metus meaning ‘fear’, and to be meticulous initially meant to be fearful of something, or else very timid. It came to mean overly careful about minor details, describing someone who was fussily overscrupulous if anything.
However, it has since developed more positive connotations, and now to be meticulous is normally to be punctilious or scrupulous, and meticulousness is something to be desired.
Meanwhile, if someone is PAINSTAKING in their approach, it means they are extremely CAREFUL and scrupulous in every detail: in other words, they take pains to avoid making mistakes. If you take pains with something, you work hard to make sure you do a good job. (Although many people pronounce painstaking as though it should be divided as pain- and staking, it’s actually pains taking and should be pronounced accordingly.)
EXACT, PRECISE, and ACCURATE can also be used as synonyms for scrupulous, indicating that the person so described is careful to ensure that every detail is correct. So one might say that my doctor is very exact about my new medication or the teacher was precise about what I need to do to improve my work. Someone might be described as accurate if they’re making predictions or assessing a particular situation.
A similar quality is conveyed by STRICT, RIGOROUS, and THOROUGH. If you’re rigorous in your approach, you’re thorough in every particular, keeping strictly to a set of protocols and adhering to the required standards.
Being careful implies also being CAUTIOUS, CONSCIENTIOUS, and HEEDFUL.
Of course, if someone is careful to be precise in their work, this implies that they work hard and take pride in the work they undertake. The words ASSIDUOUS, SEDULOUS, and DILIGENT – all of which are broadly synonyms for ‘hard-working’ – can all be used here as near-synonyms for scrupulous.
Diligence denotes someone who works steadily and consistently at, or towards, something. It’s derived from Latin: dīligent-em meant ‘attentive’ (i.e., to particular details or a specific task). The OED tells us that diligent is ultimately from the present participle of the Latin verb dīligĕre meaning ‘to value or esteem highly, love, choose, affect, take delight in’. To be diligent is not only to work hard but to love one’s work – or at least, work so hard that it looks as though one loves it.
Sedulous, meanwhile, is derived from the Latin sēdulus meaning ‘careful’, so we can see why that works so well as a synonym for ‘scrupulous’.
The adjectives FUSSY and FASTIDIOUS are of a slightly different order. Although they’re both fairly neutral, they verge on being negative or disparaging, implying that someone is overly attentive to detail. For instance, one might say that I like my accountant, but he’s quite fastidious – implying that his thoroughness is excessive and annoying.
So far, we’ve focused on one side of scrupulousness, namely the attention to detail which a scrupulous person has. But there is also often a moral angle. For being scrupulous often involves sticking to one’s moral principles, and so the words MORAL, ETHICAL, PRINCIPLED, and HONEST can all be used synonymously with scrupulous.