re-dê-sênt • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Adjective
Meaning: Uncommunicative, reluctant to speak or express oneself, taciturn.
Notes: We bring up this word because an erroneous usage is creeping into US dictionaries: the sense of "reluctant to do anything", as in, "I'm reticent to come in to work today because of all the black ice on the streets." Most dialects of English do not allow this meaning. Only time will tell if this new, broader meaning will take over. Until we are sure, I propose we stick to the original meaning. The noun, reticence, should be treated the same way.
In Play: The remarkable aspect of this misused term is that it has so many interesting legitimate uses: "Bill was understandably reticent about the lipstick on his collar" or "Hillary became adamantly reticent when asked about the chocolates under the couch." Let's restore this word to its narrower, more precise semantic space.
Word History: So, what's new? Today's Good Word, like about half the words in the English language, comes from Latin. This time the source is Latin reticentia "silence" from reticere "to be silent". This verb is based on an earlier form, retacere, made up of re-, just an intensifier here, + tacere "to be silent". The tac- in this word can also be found in other borrowings from Latin, such as tacit, from tacitus "unspoken, passed over in silence". Taciturn "quiet, not talkative" comes from Latin taciturnus "of few words", also built on the root tac-. Only scant evidence of this word can be found in languages outside Latin and the Romance languages that developed from it.
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