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 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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