Feeling reluctant to admit your ‘reticence’?

"Reticent" has meant “reluctant” almost as long as it's meant “reserved.” Language mavens have agitated against this "new” use dating from the 1800s.

Ever since I took the SAT in high school, I have understood reticent to mean – as the test-prep site vocabulary.com explains – “not inclined to talk or provide information” or “reluctant to draw attention to yourself.” Reticent evokes 19th-century novels, in which such reserve was often portrayed as a virtue, an indication that one spoke when it was proper and useful. In George Eliot’s “Middlemarch” (1871-72), for example, a “want [lack] of reticence” is a fault that might be met with “severity.”

When I read recently in The New York Times that athletic associations “have been reticent to confront Chinese authorities,” I was bothered. Here, reticent means “reluctant” or “hesitant,” and to me, this seemed like an error. 

Reader, I was wrong. Using reticent as a synonym for reluctant is perfectly correct today, whether or not Eliot would agree or the College Board would give credit for that answer. It is easy to see how this change happened. English borrowed reticence pretty much unchanged from either French (réticence) or Latin (reticentia) in the early 17th century. These words both meant “avoidance of speech, silence,” and that’s what the English version meant as well.

The adjective reticent first appeared in 1825 in a description of someone as “quiet, retired, and reticent.” By 1875, however, as Merriam-Webster explains, “instead of just describing those who are reluctant to speak, it was being used to describe those who are just plain reluctant.” Reticent has meant “reluctant” almost as long as it has meant “reserved.” 

Many language mavens have agitated against this “new” use that actually isn’t so new. In 1981, columnist William Safire asserted, “You cannot be reticent to do or say anything; that’s when to use ‘reluctant’ or ‘hesitant.’” You might declare that you are “reticent to start going back to the office” and everyone will understand you, but, according to Mr. Safire, this is “a solecism, a mistake.” More recently, Robert M. Martin, who writes about language, admitted that this use “might be nearing acceptability.” 

Author of “Modern American Usage” Bryan Garner would prefer that speakers differentiate between reticent and reluctant, yet puts their conflation at “Language Change Stage Four,” using a scale of one being “rejected” and five as “fully accepted.” Despite the efforts of Mr. Safire et al., this usage is “virtually universal,” Mr. Garner says.

I think we do lose something if reticent comes to mean nothing more than reluctant. In our social media world that rewards the broadcasting of every thought, how wonderful to remember that quiet, dignified, reserved reticence can be valuable, too.

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