It’s All “Fine”

By Mark Nichol

The two diverse meanings of fine—as a noun or a verb referring to payment of a penalty and as an adjective denoting quality—stem from a common root.

Fine and its various derivations come from Latin finis, meaning “border,” “limit,” or “end”; from the early days of the printing press until into the modern era, this term was often printed at the end of a book regardless of the language of the text in the volume, and aficionados of French cinema are familiar with its Gallic descendant, fin, shown at the conclusion of many French-language films.

The verb finish, meaning “to bring or come to an end,” and the noun form, describing a conclusion, as well as a surface coating intended to complete a crafted object, also derive from finis, as does the noun final, which pertains to that which comes or happens last; it is also often employed as an adjective, though adjective-noun phrases such as “final competition” or “final examination” are frequently truncated to merely final.

The adjective fine, meaning “of high quality” or “pure,” comes from the Old French term fin, a back-formation of finis. By extension, fine also became synonymous with structural delicacy and intricacy, as well as monetary value and moral standing. It is also used casually to mean “good” or “satisfactory,” though when uttered with an edge, it is being delivered sarcastically to indicate that the situation is anything but that. (In print, to indicate a speaker’s or writer’s sarcastic emphasis, the word is best treated in italics to convey this sense.)

In medieval times, the word meant “end of life” or “termination”; although this sense eventually became obsolete, the word survived in the later sense of “payment for compensation or punishment.” The verb form originally meant “pay,” but the sense was subsequently reversed to mean “impose payment.”

Another word related to fine in the monetary sense is finance, which was borrowed directly from the French word meaning “payment” or “settlement.” The noun acquired a verb form meaning “ransom”; the sense, as well as that of the noun form, was later extended to refer to money management in general.

Other terms descended from finis include affinity, meaning “natural attraction” and referring to relationships in scientific and other scholarly contexts; it is descended from the Latin term affinis, meaning “adjacent.” The noun confine, almost invariably in plural form, refers to boundaries or limits; confinement developed as a euphemism for the period in which a pregnant woman prepares to give birth. The verb confine originally meant “border on” but later acquired the sense of “keeping within limits.”

To define was originally to end, but from the sense of “limit” it acquired the meaning of “explain”; the sister adjectives definite and definitive, respectively, mean “clear” or “unmistakable” on the one hand and “settled” and “most accurate or complete,” or “best,” on the other. Definition first meant “decision” or “establishment of boundaries” but followed the semantic shift of the verb form, developing a sense of “statement of what something means.” Later, it came to apply to the meaning of a term and then to the degree of distinctness in an image.

Infinite, meaning “limitless,” is also descended from finis; related terms are the noun form infinity, as well as the adjective infinitesimal (“infinitely small”) and the noun infinitive (“uninflected form of a verb”). The Latin phrase “ad infinitum” (literally, “to infinity”), adopted into English, means “endlessly.”

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