Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

I’m not Reticent about ‘Reticent’


Both the American Heritage and Merriam-Webster’s dictionaries now accept “reluctant” as a meaning of reticent. If we accept this, the very useful distinction between the two words is lost and I am faced with one more subtlety my coconversationalists will miss.

Reticent only means “reluctant to speak” in the rest of the English-speaking world.  It has been misused in the US by people trying to show off vocabularies they have not mastered so long that we are being forced to give up the distinction between this meaning and “reluctant to act”, which we already have in reluctant and hesitant

The -tic-ent in reticent is based on the same root as that in tacit, a stem based on the Latin verb tacere “to be silent”.  We don’t need another synonym for reluctant and hesitant and we do need a verb which means simply “[r]eserved; disinclined to speak freely; given to silence or concealment,” the only definition given by the Oxford English Dictionary.

I am too old to give up the distinction and recommend others maintain it, too. It makes no sense to surrender the subtleties with which the richness of our vocabulary provides us.


5 Responses to “I’m not Reticent about ‘Reticent’”


    I couldn’t agree more. I corrected a short story writer who publishes on the web and his response was:

    … If you say so, although Webster’s Third International affords somewhat greater leeway than your chosen authority suggests.

    My chosen authority was Paul Brians’ excellent compendium of errors.

  2. rbeard Says:

    Merriam-Webster sweeps the street for new words and new meanings–often they dip into the gutter. Beware. They are quick to announce the new words they add to their dictionaries but never announce the ones they take out because they were too quick to put them in.

  3. Reticent Resistant « Language+Music+Food+Hockey = LIFE Says:

    […] I see the good folks at alphadictionary are already on this one, it kind of freaked me out the other day when I ran across it reading the […]

  4. J Mac av8r Says:

    I am normally reticent when it comes to leaving a post on the web. However, I shall respond here. I was educated to know the difference between those words as well as to, too, and two, and there and their, here and hear, and the list goes on.
    I work with thousands of people many of whom I hear speaking on our communications radios. Not many of them know how to pronounce potable. In the same vein, what the heck are people doing with the conjunction, ‘so’? “So Johnny, where have you been?” If that is correct in their minds it won’t surprise me to hear someone say, “But, Johnny, where have you been?” Ok, that one is a stretch.
    This brings me to one of my favorite pet peeves, the word ‘like’. “I’m like, and she was like and I was like and he’s all”… Give me a grammatical break!
    I am not encouraged with current state of our educational system. It used to suffice but when the teachers don’t even know how to teach proper grammar, or choose to overlook errors I see no hope. Completely disgusting.

  5. jbstandish Says:

    I just found this blog. Thank you! I have poor grammar, but am capable and interested in bettering myself, so please judge gently this note. My huge pet peeve is when people use conversate instead of converse. It makes no sense to me, and isn’t even more efficient to say. Thanks again, I hope to learn a lot here.

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