This is an intriguing pair because of the false friend status of punktuell – according to my Pons Wörterbuch für Schule und Studium, it means “selective” or “dealing with certain points” rather than “punctual” which happens to be the meaning given by Pons for pünktlich. Duden 5 (Das Fremdwörterbuch, more about this series of books in a moment) includes an entry for Punkt and gives it origin as Latin. This makes sense to me for punktuell (that uell ending screams loan word and is similar to another false friend aktuell which doesn’t mean “actual” but instead “current” or “topical” or “relevant”). What is probably confusing me with pünktlich being a loan word is the –lich ending which is typically German and sounds a bit like and can correspond to the meaning of the English suffix “-ish.”It goes on to give the meaning of the Latin word as something like engraved (das Gestochene) or punctured (der Einstrich, now there is a resemblance with punkt).
Other German Fremd– or Lehnwörter (foreign or loan words) given are:
punktieren – “to dot, to stipple and to aspirate”
die Punktion – “puncture, tap” – as in draw out)
die Interpunktion and interpunktieren – “punctuation” and “to punctuate” – an alternative would be die Zeichensetzung which is interesting as das Zeichen can mean “mark” or “tick” which are a little like “point”
der Kontrapunkt – “the counterpoint”
kunterbunt – “motley” or “multicolored” or “higgledy-piggledy” collection of things
die Pointe – “punchline” or “nub”
pointiert – “trenchant(ly)” pr “pithy” or “pointed(ly)” – more at some point soon about this devilish slipperiness in German where one word is both adverb and adjective
pointieren – “to emphasize” or “to stress”
Now this was so much fun that I pulled another book down from the library shelf, Kluge Etymologisches Wörterbuch der deutsch Sprache, to see what it might have to say about pünktlich and punktuell. Here I learned that pünktlich entered German in the 15th century and comparable words are punctueel (Dutch), ponctuel (French) and punktlig (Norwegian and Swedish). Even more intriguing were a few the words related to der Punkt. The first is der Spund which had two entries, namely 1. “spigot” or “tap” and 2. “whippersnapper” or “young pup” or “greenhorn.” The second is die Akupunktur which means “acupuncture.” And finally, it is suggested that there is a possible connection with der Pygmäe – “Pygmy” – through the Latin pungere (a combination which, via Google, led me to Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English by Eric Patridge but I resisted that rabbit-hole, although not before noticing the connection to “pugilist” and “poignant”).
Okay, Duden. There are 12 volumes. Now we do have the multi-volume OED, but how many people do you know who have this (and don’t count your friends who are linguists, etymologists, etc.)? And of course there are English language books with synonyms, with common sayings, with quotations, etc., but I’ve not seen them sold as a series like the Duden, which is advertised as Das gesamte Spektrum der deutschen Sprache – which I will translate rather colorfully as “Running the whole gamut of the German language.” Volume 5‘s tagline is Unentbehrlich für das Verstehen und den Gebrauch fremder Wörter – “Indispensable/Essential for the use and understanding of foreign words” (I like “indispensable” as the “in-” prefix matches with the un– prefix and I swapped “use” and “understanding” because somehow that order felt more like English to me). Other members of the Duden Series will star in future posts.
I can’t say that knowing that pünktlich and punktuell come from a Latin root really helped me to see how or why their meanings diverge from the English meanings, though spending this much time with them while composing this post has helped to cement their meanings that little bit better!