Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor

Episode 96: Unwilling to Talk or Simply Unwilling?

This week's episode was inspired by a message we received from Mike, a listener in Tucson, Arizona. Mike writes:

"Could you investigate the distinction between reluctant and reticent? It seems to me a lot of people who use 'reticent' are usually reluctant and are seldom reticent!"

Thanks for the message, Mike. Here's how The Oxford Dictionary of Current English defines the adjective reticent:

Not revealing one's thoughts or feelings readily.

And here's how Webster's New World College Dictionary defines reticent:
Habitually silent or uncommunicative; disinclined to speak readily; reserved; taciturn, or, having a restrained, quiet or understated quality.

Meanwhile, both the Oxford Dictionary of Current English and Webster's New World College Dictionary define reluctant as follows:
Unwilling and hesitant; disinclined to do something.

It seems an open-and-shut case, but as Mike noted in his message, he's observing the word reticent being used to mean the same thing as reluctant. And it turns out Mike's not the only one. Not surprisingly, Fowler's Modern English Usage is also on the scent. Here's what it says:
"Evidence is accumulating that reticent is now also being used to mean 'reluctant to act', and it's dragging the noun reticence along in the same direction."

Another person who has researched this shift in meaning is author and linguist Michael Quinion, a frequent guest on Grammar Grater. In 2007, Quinion found this use of reticent in London's The Guardian newspaper:
"Theatre critics habitually complain about artistic directors' reticence to tackle untried repertoire."

Michael Quinion joined us by telephone. We asked him what he could tell us about reticent and reluctant. Quinion says that reticent comes from a Latin verb that means "to be silent"—and it's from that same root that we get the word taciturn, meaning reserved or uncommunicative in speech. "Reticent and reluctant have quite different senses, at least traditionally," he says.

Nevertheless, Quinion notes that we're witnessing a merging in sense of reticent with that of reluctant. Quinion traces this shift back about forty years, so it's not a very new phenomenon. He says this change began in the United States, but that now it's known throughout the English-speaking world. "A few American dictionaries, The American Heritage Dictionary and the Merriam-Webster Dictionary among them, now note that reluctant is a subsidiary sense of reticent," Quinion says, "but the style guides, generally speaking, suggest it should be avoided, and a lot of language watchers strongly dislike it."

It's not enough to dissuade people from replacing reluctant with reticent. Quinion offers a couple explanations. "It may be just that reticent sounds rather more classy than reluctant," he posits. "But it's easy to understand confusion between the two because the context in which they're both used is often very similar. If a person is reluctant, he's unwilling to do something; if he's reticent, he's unwilling to speak. You might say that reticent refers to a subset of the meanings of reluctant."

Quinion compares the sentences:
"He's reluctant to talk about that issue."
and
"He's reticent on that issue."

The meaning is the very much same in both cases. "If you're reticent, you can very easily give the impression of being reluctant to act or hesitant about doing so," Quinion says.

According to Fowler's Modern English Usage, this new use of reticent is "non-standard but has an air of inevitability about it." Quinion thinks this is a fair statement. "Certainly the history of the development of the two senses over the last few decades bears it out," he says. "There's very little doubt that this usage will continue to spread in spite of all the criticism."

Quinion points out that the shift in meaning is not without cost. "We will lose precision," he says. "We will have no word available that expresses quite the same idea as the traditional meaning of reticent. We shall still have taciturn to hand of course, but that implies a person with a level of reserve that borders on unsociability rather than someone who merely wants to avoid talking about his private affairs."

Thus it appears that reticent is quickly gaining currency as a synonym for reluctant. It may be nonstandard, but once people start using language a certain way, it's hard to stem the tide.

Sources: Oxford Dictionary of Current English, Webster's New World College Dictionary, Fowler's Modern English Usage by R.W. Burchfield and Michael Quinion's World Wide Words

Music: "Love Rollercoaster" by the Ohio Players; "Girlshapedlovedrug" by Gomez

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