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Reticent versus reluctant

Q From Alison Chan: People are using reticent when they mean reluctant, as in the following sentence: “I felt quite reticent to take part in the event”. How has it been hijacked? And is it widespread enough to be taking over the previous meaning of the word?

A We are indeed witnessing an extension in sense that has been developing over the past four decades or so, originally in the US but now widely in the English-speaking world. While researching this answer a few days ago, I found an example of the related noun in the Guardian, a British newspaper: “Theatre critics habitually complain about artistic directors’ reticence to tackle untried repertoire.” A few US dictionaries have begun to notice it (recent American Heritage and Merriam-Webster ones, regarded as dangerously permissive by purists, now note it as a subsidiary sense), though style guides suggest that it should be avoided and many language watchers are vociferous in disliking it.

Reticent hasn’t been in the language so very long in relative terms in any sense: it’s first recorded in the 1830s together with its noun reticence. It was taken from Latin reticere, which is a compound of tacere, to be silent, from which we also obtained tacit and taciturn. Its standard meanings are “disinclined to speak freely” or “not revealing thoughts or feelings readily”. So it can be used as George Orwell did in The Road to Wigan Pier in 1937: “How many of these caravan-colonies exist throughout the industrial areas it would be difficult to discover with any accuracy. The local authorities are reticent about them and the census report of 1931 seems to have decided to ignore them.”

So why has it taken on this new sense? It may be partly that reticent sounds more classy than reluctant. But it’s easy to understand confusion arising between reticent and reluctant, since the context is often similar. If a person is reluctant, he’s unwilling to do something; if reticent, he’s unwilling to speak. Reticent refers to a subset of the meaning of reluctant. Compare “He’s reluctant to talk about that issue” with “He’s reticent on that issue”. The result is the same either way. If you’re reticent, you can very easily also give the impression of being reluctant to act or hesitant about doing so.

Merriam-Webster’s editors put it this way in their Word of the Day mailing in September 2001: “We first tended to use the reluctant sense of reticent when the context was speech (as in reticent to talk about her past), thus keeping the word close to its silent sense. Eventually, however, exclusive association with speech was abandoned. Now one can be reticent to do anything.”

There can be little doubt this usage will continue to spread, in spite of much criticism. It’s a pity, as we will lose precision — we will have no word available that expresses quite the same idea. Though taciturn will still be to hand, it implies a person with a reserve that borders on unsociability rather than one who merely wishes to avoid discussing his private affairs.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 6 Oct. 2007

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 6 October 2007.