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The Word

Point taken

How finely should we put it?

By Jan Freeman
October 25, 2009

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“NOT TO PUT too fine a point on it, the Roundabout’s revival of ‘Bye Bye Birdie’ is the worst-sung musical I’ve ever seen on Broadway,” wrote Terry Teachout in The Wall Street Journal of the new production.

“Betty has been, not to put too fine a point on it, a drag in ‘Mad Men’ for some time,” complained William Bradley at Huffington Post earlier this month.

It’s a phrase in wide use, and usually it’s clear from the context, if you didn’t know already, that it means “not to mince words, to speak bluntly.” Dickens made it a signature for Mr. Snagsby in “Bleak House,” calling it the character’s “favorite apology for plain-speaking” - the equivalent of “pardon my French” before a coarse characterization.

But where does the metaphor come from? What is “the point,” and what would it be too fine for?

I’ve been idly wondering for a long time; Henry James, one of my favorite authors, is a heavy user of the expression, though, being Henry James, he generally says “not to put too fine a point on it” as a preface to some very fine Jamesian nuance.

It’s tempting to read the phrase as a pen-based metaphor, an explanation offered at the British etymology site The Phrase Finder: “I would imagine it has its origins in either pencils or quill pens which would be used for delicate work if sharpened to a fine point, but for cruder stuff if left blunt.” But no other source seconds that appealing theory.

I thought the answer was about to emerge last month, when Patricia O’Conner wrote about the phrase at her Grammarphobia blog. But no: She is as baffled as everyone else. “The OED describes the usage as figurative,” she reported, “but doesn’t say exactly what the figure is. Go figure.”

As she says, the Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t give the answer, but it does offer clues: In the entry for fine, the cross-reference for “put too fine a point” (listed under point) appears under the sense of fine applied to tools and weapons: “sharp-pointed, keen-edged.” The figurative examples come from Shakespeare (“blunting the fine point of seldom pleasure,” 1600) and Bacon (“The finer edges or points of wit,” 1622).

These uses blend the idea of a sharp tool with a refined apprehension, and other early uses of “fine point” share that notion. These examples are often positive, not negative; today, we’re always not putting too fine a point on it, but that wasn’t always the case. For instance, in an 1842 issue of The Knickerbocker, a New York literary monthly, a writer sardonically advised readers, “If any passage appears to you as dull, consider it a piece of latent wit, whose point is too fine for your obtuse perceptions.”

And the Warren Street Chapel, according to an 1861 “Historical Sketch of Boston,” was not only a refuge for the destitute: “It aims also to benefit those who, ‘to put a fine point upon it,’ are in less favored circumstances as regards the means of a true culture.”

If a fine point is a delicate bit of wit or observation, “too fine a point” implies language that is too refined for the immediate purpose, more polite than the object deserves. This sense seems to emerge seamlessly from earlier figurative uses of fine and point, without reference to anything so concrete as a quill and penknife. If it’s more opaque now than it was to earlier writers, that may be because we’re far less concerned with gradations of subtlety.

Take the quote from Henry James cited in the OED (from an 1873 article in The Nation): “The ‘most delicate charm’ to Mr. Hawthorne was apparently simply the primal freshness and brightness of paint and varnish, and - not to put too fine a point upon it - the new gilding of the frame.” (In other words, Hawthorne fell for the shiny surfaces of the artwork in question.) Writers today are much less inclined to put too fine a point on anything; the apology is now a rhetorical formula, a setup for the knockout blow. A review of “Madame Butterfly” reports that “Pinkerton - not to put too fine a point on it - is a dull wimp.”

This would be a satisfactory state of affairs - rhetorical formulas are part of everyone’s verbal arsenal - but there are signs that “not to put too fine a point” has become so opaque that it’s being misused. Since it means “to speak bluntly,” it should introduce some reasonably emphatic judgment. When writers pull their punches - as in “Not to put too fine a point on it, but everyone has access to health insurance,” or “reaction to the award was, not to put too fine a point on it, mixed” - they contradict themselves; they are, in fact, putting too fine a point on it.

E-mail Jan Freeman at mailtheword@gmail.com. For past columns, go to boston.com/ideas.