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Restive versus restless

Q From Will Mason, Austria: I said to my wife this morning: “I had a restive night”. We went on to talk about the difference between restive and restless, until I finally looked both words up in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. I was surprised and faintly appalled to find that I had apparently been using the word quite wrongly all my life. It makes much more sense for the word to mean “unwilling to move”. Is it only me who uses the word in the sense of restless, or has this quite incorrect meaning usurped the original one?

A Restive is an interesting word that has completely reversed its sense during its history in English. These days, we use it in the way that you automatically did, for being unable to stay still. But for several centuries, it meant the opposite: inactive or inert, more resting than restless.

The politician Sir Edwin Sandys wrote in 1599 about the “perpetual quiet” of “heavy and restive bodies”; 100 years later, the surgeon and buccaneer Lionel Wafer recorded in A New Voyage and Description of the Isthmus of America a note about natives of the area: “Notwithstanding their being thus sluggish, and dull, and restive in the day-time, yet when moon-shiny nights come, they are all life and activity”. This meaning is obsolete, marked in the Shorter Oxford with the date range “L16-M19”, meaning that it was in use from the late sixteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries.

Restive arrived in the fifteenth century from the French word now spelled rétif, ultimately from Latin restare, to rest. In its first incarnation it was spelled restiff and meant a horse that resisted control and in particular refused to move forwards when commanded. Restiff remained in the language until the nineteenth century. At the very end of the sixteenth century a variant form evolved from it in the modern spelling of restive, with a sense of being still or sluggish. This spelling and sense likewise stayed in the language into the nineteenth century. To confuse matters, by the middle of the seventeenth century, restive had borrowed the main sense of restiff, a stubborn refusal of a horse to do what it was told.

During the latter part of the nineteenth century, the skittishness and wild movements that often resulted from the refusal of a horse to obey caused restive to acquire the new meaning “fidgety” or “impatient”. This has become our dominant one today.

Restive has muscled in on the territory of restless, both of them suggesting a physical manifestation of internal unease, but for different reasons. Behind restive lie impatience, irritation, dissatisfaction, or boredom (J B Priestley wrote in 1929 in The Good Companions: “The audience was growing restive; there was some stamping of feet at the back”). A thesaurus will put restive with insubordinate, recalcitrant and unmanageable (reflecting the older sense of an uncooperative horse) as well as fidgety and impatient. Restless, on the other hand, usually implies anxiety and you can often replace it by edgy, nervous, agitated or tense. To have a restless night implies that you can’t sleep because you are turning over some problem in your mind or or are suffering some physical discomfort.

American writers began to complain about the “impatient” and “fidgety” senses of restive around 1870 (restive had appeared in Webster’s Dictionary in 1864 with the definition “impatient; uneasy”). However, the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, whose entry was written about 1908, doesn’t include this sense, so it looks as though our modern meaning is American in origin and only slowly became known in other countries. Many writers have tried to defend the older sense of restive against the newer one and to try to maintain a distinction between it and restless. Sir Ernest Gowers wrote in the 1965 edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage: “A horse may be restless when loose in a field, but can only be restive if it is resisting control. A child can be restless from boredom, but can only be restive if someone is trying to make him do what he does not want.”

This distinction remains, though it is being eroded by users who consider restive and restless to be exact synonyms.

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Page created 28 Jul 2007