Saturday, June 27, 2009

`Chipped Off the Latin'

When I encounter the word “scruple” in print (rather often) or conversation (almost never) I think of “At the Grave of Henry James,” in which Auden addresses the “Master of nuance and scruple, / Pray for me and for all writers, living or dead…” Auden means this, of course, as praise, though modern usage suggests there is something neurotic about scrupulosity, something repressed or thwarted and probably “curable” with therapy.

The family of my 8-year-old’s closest school friend is Indian, from the Punjab region, and they are Sikhs. I took Michael to their house for a play date on Friday and met the boy’s paternal grandparents. The grandfather is tall, with a military bearing – very erect and straight-shouldered, yet relaxed and kindly. I thought of Umr Singh in Kipling’s story “A Sahib’s War.” Over tea I confessed my ignorance and asked many questions about Sikhism, and my host answered patiently. I was interested in particular in what distinguishes his religion from Hinduism and others. At one point he said, “We believe in truthful living. We have many scruples about how we live.”

I think of “scrupulous” as the opposite of careless or impulsive. “Painstaking” is the one-word synonym that comes to mind, and a little digging shows my thinking is grounded in good etymology. “Scruple” dates in English, by way of French, from the 16th century. The Latin root is scrupulus, meaning “uneasiness, anxiety, pricking of conscience,” from scrupus – a sharp stone or pebble. In other words, scruples are like having a stone in your shoe. In his Dictionary, Samuel Johnson defines “scruple” as “Doubt; difficulty of determination; perplexity; generally about minute things.” And consider Joyce’s “agenbite of inwit.”

To have many scruples about how we live seems, as the Sikh says, like an excellent way to live – and write. Writing involves a thousand minute decisions about sound and sense, taking many pains. Judging from “Scruples” (from The Calligraphy Shop, 2003), Ben Downing understands:

“Chipped off the Latin for
`small sharp stone,’ they are
those irritants that get
into our shoes and sting
our feet until we stop,
stoop, and dump them out.”

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