Q: I often hear “painstaking” pronounced PAIN-staking, but prefer PAINS-taking. Any thoughts?
A: Both PAINS-taking and PAIN-staking are standard pronunciations in the US, while PAINS-taking is the standard pronunciation in the UK, according to the American and British dictionaries we’ve checked.
Etymologically, the PAINS-taking pronunciation makes more sense. The word “painstaking” originally meant (and still means) taking pains—that is, care and effort—to do something.
When the noun “pain” appeared in the 13th century, it had two meanings: “trouble taken in accomplishing or attempting something” and “physical or bodily suffering,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The earliest OED citations for both senses are from Of Arthour and of Merlin, a Middle English romance that scholars date to the late 1200s.
Here’s the example for taking trouble: “Harans biseged and dede his peine, Þe cite to winne of Dorkeine” (“Harans besieged Dorkeine and took pains to capture the city”).
(Harans is a Saxon king in Arthurian legend. We haven’t been able to identify Dorkeine, though it may refer to what is now Dorking in Surrey, which was occupied by Saxons in the 5th and 6th centuries.)
And here’s the example for physical pain:”What for sorwe & eke for paine” (“What for sorrow as well as pain”).
“Painstaking” showed up in English as a noun in the 16th century and as an adjective in the 17th. The OED defines the noun, a combination of the plural “pains” plus the verbal noun “taking,” as the “taking of pains; the application of careful and attentive effort towards the accomplishment of something.”
The dictionary’s earliest example of the noun is from a 1545 will that authorizes the executor to collect the funds when “a payre of indentures” come due: “And that fynysshed and doon … he shal have for his paynes taking.” (Abstracts From the Wills of English Printers and Stationers, 1903, by Henry Robert Plomer.)
The first Oxford citation for the adjective is from a collection of poems and criticism by Wentworth Dillon, 4th Earl of Roscommon, written sometime before his death in 1685:
“He opposes the pains-taking Women of the first Times, to the fine, lazy, voluptuous Dames of his own Age.” The quotation is from a note about an English translation of an ode by the Roman poet Horace.
Finally, here’s a recent example from the Nov. 29, 2018, issue of Time magazine: “Peter Jackson on His New WWI Documentary, a Painstaking Labor of Love.” (The headline on an interview with the New Zealand director about his film They Shall Not Grow Old.)