Daily Archives: August 13, 2011

reticent, reluctant

Dear word sommelier: When should I use reticent and when reluctant?

I’m a little, um, hesitant to wade into one like this, because this gets to be one of those pedantics-versus-the-universe points. Not that there’s a whole lot of debate over reluctant, mind you – though there is a little specification of sense that some may stipulate. But reticent is one of those words that some people will use as a net to catch you with if you so much as offer a penny for their thoughts – or even if you don’t.

There is, of course, a difference in the feel of the words that will always have some effect, whether you’re a semantic stickler or not. They are similar-looking words, re____nt; one has tice where the other has lucta, both with a t and a c, so the difference in look is mainly i and e versus lu and a. The feel of the sound is more different. The rhythm, for starts, is a dactyl in reticent and an amphibrach in reluctant; ironically, the vowel in re is (or may be) “long” in the word where it’s unstressed but not in the word where it’s stressed. More to the heart of the matter, reticent stays on the tip of the tongue, a little more tentative and delicate with the /tɪs/; in reluctant the mouth is locked up with a clucking coarticulation after the lick: /lʌkt/.

There’s also the relative frequency of the words. Reticent is a much less commonly used word than reluctant. That makes it a pricier word – used when people want to sound more erudite, impressive, what have you. It’s also a newer word by a couple of centuries; it first showed up in the early 1800s, while reluctant has been around since the early 1600s.

Both come from Latin, naturally: the re at the beginning is the same, meaning “back” or similar things, and the [a/e]nt is a present participle ending. The root difference is in the occupant of the space for re____nt. In reluctant, it’s luctari, “fight”. Originally, to be reluctant was to actively resist something; there’s a verb, reluct, which doesn’t get used now, at least in part because now we view reluctance as more of a passive resistance or even simple hesitation. It might be as little as not truly believing you’ve lucked into something – for instance, if you’re reluctant to believe that the person calling telling you you’ve won a cruise vacation is on the up and up. I’d like to think the effect of the tongue backing away in the luc adds to that sense, but of course I have no data for that.

In reticent, on the other hand, the root is tacere “be silent” (compare French Tais-toi! “Shut up!”/”Be quiet!”). The original use, and the one still preferred by those who make it their business to prefer such things, is closer to “taciturn” than to “hesitant” or “resistant”: it means “disinclined to express personal thoughts and feelings; the opposite of loquacious”. It stands alone: “Herb was reticent.” (That’s a quote from MAD magazine. Yes it is.) But you may often see reticent used to mean, well, “reluctant” – the same sense of “reluctant” as we use today, often taking an infinitive complement: “The State registrar was just as reticent to give us information.”

That last quote, by the way, comes from 1875. This usage, which undeniably uses it to mean what there’s already another word to mean, but with the added air of elevation, erudition, or plain misplaced prissiness, has been around much too long and is much too well established to eradicate. That doesn’t mean you have to use it, of course; you’re perfectly within your rights to reserve reticent for what you wish pedants would be. But if you are not reluctant to use it as a shiny substitute for “reluctant”, just be aware that there may be a semantic retiarius ready to cast a net of condemnation without so much as one red cent in payment for their liberally expressed conservatism.

Thanks to Stan Backs for suggesting reticent. A retiarius, by the way, is a gladiator who uses a net.