Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Mailbag Friday: "Reticent"

Maria C. of Jersey City, NJ writes in with today's Mailbag Friday question: "My coworker always uses the word reticent when he really means reluctant. Isn't he using the wrong word?"

Many usage guides agree that generalizing reticent to mean "reluctant" rather than simply "reluctant to speak" is erroneous. Here's a sampling:

"Reticent" denotes only reluctance to speak; do not use it for any
other form of reluctance.
—Paul Brians, Common Errors in English

"reticent" (= reserved; unwilling to speak freely; taciturn) is
frequently misunderstood as being synonymous with "reluctant."
—Bryan Garner, Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style

Reticence is only one form of reluctance. And the words work differently.
"Reticence" means reluctance to speak up or come forward; silence; reserve.
—Columbia Journalism Review, Language Corner

Historically, reticent first came on the scene around 1830, about two centuries after reluctant, and the newcomer seems to have gotten pulled along by the older word's current. They share a certain phonetic similarity, though their Latin roots are unrelated beyond the re- prefix: in reluctant, re- combines with luctari 'to struggle' (a root also found in ineluctable) while in reticent it combines with tacere 'to be silent' (also found in tacit and taciturn). So reluctant originated in the idea of struggling against doing something, while reticent simply referred to a disinclination to speak.

We can see the pull of reticent toward reluctant (and also perhaps hesitant) in the words that it has been used with. Originally one could simply be reticent (prone to silence) or reticent about something (unwilling to speak about it). But before long the word began appearing in the rather redundant formation reticent to speak (or talk): Google Book Search readily pulls up examples of this phrase from 1867 and 1869. So the pattern of using reticent with the word to was established very early on, though still restricted to the context of (not) speaking.

From reticent to speak began the slippery slope in the twentieth century, toward the more generalized use. Here's a quote from the Hartford Courant of Feb. 1, 1931:

It has been pointed out that many young women have been reticent to come to the Old State House to apply for work.

And here is the Wall Street Journal of Dec. 5, 1940:

The part of the bankers played in the last war has made them extremely reticent to do anything in this European War which will bring any blame for it to them.

So by that time reticent was already being treated by some writers as little more than a substitute for reluctant or hesitant. The frequency of reticent in this use, related to activities other than speaking, has increased in recent decades to the point that it threatens to crowd out the original sense.

This type of expansion of a word's meaning, encroaching on the domain of other similar-sounding words, is not unusual in the semantic development of our lexicon. But it's hard not to feel a sense of loss if reticent just becomes a straightforward synonym for reluctant. Here's how Michael Quinion of World Wide Words puts it:

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.

As Quinion suggests, this may already be a lost battle. But those who would like to uphold the useful distinction between reticent and reluctant should by all means maintain a distance between the two words... and don't be reticent about it.

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Ben Zimmer is executive editor of Vocabulary.com and the Visual Thesaurus. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Friday March 20th 2009, 5:43 AM
Comment by: Winston D.
My goodness! Whoever was wielding the blue pencil down at the "Hartford Courant" in 1931 and at the "Wall Street Journal" in 1940, were certainly not on their toes! For shame! And copy-editing has only gone downhill in the intervening decades.

In Meredith Willson's "The Music Man," there is a perfect example of the use of reticent.

The townswomen of River City are on the street gossiping and giving forth on Professor Harold Hill. Eventually, they turn to Eulalie MacKechnie Shinn,(the Mayor's wife, played by Hermione Gingold), and solicit her opinion. She replies, "I am reticent. Oh, yes, I am reticent! My husband has not seen the man's credentials."
Friday March 20th 2009, 2:28 PM
Comment by: Marian C. (Murphys, CA)
I'm not quite clear on this yet. Does reticent mean "not wanting to speak" or not wanting to discuss, or blog, or in any way relate to writing on a topic? Our communication tools have taken us far beyond merely "speaking" on a subject. I am understanding reticent to mean "unwilling to voice an opinion." while reluctant only means "I don't want to say this, but. . ." Until this day I confess I never noticed a difference is these two words, but now I think I've got it. Yes? No?
Friday March 20th 2009, 2:33 PM
Comment by: Darwin Z.
What about using the word "reticent/reluctant " when you are WRITING this word but not SAYING it ??? I also feel "reluctant/reticent " to point out that after your discussion of the usage of these two words , in the first sentence of the second paragraph after your discussion in which you cited three references , you ended your sentence with the preposition "with" . Heh heh Darnie
Friday March 20th 2009, 4:03 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Marian C. and Darwin Z.: I think the initial sense of reticent applied to speaking and then was extended to all types of discourse (and then to non-discursive activities). Marian's gloss "unwilling to voice an opinion" is certainly one possibility, or it could be "unwilling to discuss private affairs" as Michael Quinion suggests. These days such reticence is hard to come by in our culture of oversharing.

And Darwin, I'll save my response to your preposition comment for another day!
Friday March 20th 2009, 5:36 PM
Comment by: Gr3tch3n J. (Auburn, CA)
It all returns to Latin, which I was privileged (now I realize) to have studied in junior high and high schools, around 55 years ago. Latin was an elective for College Prep, and from it I now also speak, read, write Italian and Spanish, in addition to being a stickler for correct English. And this was in Idaho Falls, Idaho, I tell you!

reluctant=hesitant(to do something, such as smoke);
reticent=unwilling to speak.
Friday March 20th 2009, 11:05 PM
Comment by: Jorge W. M.
I am reluctant to get involve on this discusion, because I am reticent to speak about it.
Sunday March 22nd 2009, 10:53 AM
Comment by: Alan G. (Newark, NJ)
Just another example of a malapropism moving through a neologism and on to acceptism.
Sunday March 22nd 2009, 11:33 AM
Comment by: Clarence W.
I had been intellectually aware that the English language provided for more precision than most languages after being stationed in Germany in the first half of the 1980's. But, it wasn't until the 1997 film "Rough Riders" that I had a more visceral reaction to such precision.

If memory serves, after a battle won where the odds were stacked against them, a superior officer questions whether Teddy Roosevelt had had too much to drink. Teddy apologizes saying he is "overcome with mirth" as he heartily laughs and falls backward over the bench.

It was merely funny as I watched it, vaguely understanding mirth as meaning "happy". Afterward, my thoughts involuntarily and persistently returned to the word "mirth", until I was driven to resources.

To be spontaneously moved to laughter by the camaraderie of others, especially under the life and death circumstances shared with those others mere hours before,........, well, "happy" doesn't quite satisfy, does it?
Sunday March 22nd 2009, 1:04 PM
Comment by: Lewis C. (torrance, CA)
One of my picture framing customers is an artist, withdrawn, and hesitant to speak on any subject, except her own beautiful artwork, on which she will speak freely, and at length. For the duration of those rare moments she is animated, excited, and very expressive. I'm reluctant to change the subject, knowing if I do, she will instantly return to her inward, reticent, and timid self.
Sunday March 22nd 2009, 3:35 PM
Comment by: Bill G.
What would the Editors of the Hartford Courant or the Wall Street Journal say about "the newcomer seems to have gotten pulled along"?
Sunday March 22nd 2009, 3:48 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Bill G.: If your objection is to the word gotten, then I suspect you're a speaker of British English, where gotten has largely fallen out of use. It's still alive and well on this side of the pond, however. For more on this transatlantic distinction, see this entry from the American Heritage Book of English Usage.
Sunday March 22nd 2009, 5:50 PM
Comment by: Kenneth K. (Glen Covde, NY)
It's interesting that "furlough" ranks "near the bottom," but I would rather know how the word is derived.
Saturday April 4th 2009, 5:41 PM
Comment by: A. Z.
OMG! Does anyone have shame anymore??
Saturday September 5th 2009, 12:56 PM
Comment by: Elle
My only response to this article is THANK YOU!

I've been fighting a battle with those who are not reluctant enough to use the word "reticent" for quite a while.
It's good to know I'm not alone.

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