Posted by: Jack Henry | May 21, 2019

Editor’s Corner: Reticent and reluctant

I was talking to my dad the other day, and after some pleasantries he launched right into the kind of thing a dad might ask of his Editrix daughter. “Daughter,” he said, “I have a question for you about the words reticent and reluctant.” (Okay, he didn’t say “daughter”—it was probably “Kiddo.”)

His primary observation is that these two words are often used interchangeably, but that they shouldn’t be. He said reticent is more “quiet or reserved,” and that reluctant is more “hesitant.” I wondered if it was yet another set of words that were changing over time, like a lot of words in English. When I checked, I found he is not alone: his observation has been made by others. I found several articles on the internet discussing the differences, including Grammarphobia, World Wide Words, and The Grammarist.

First, the official definitions from Merriam-Webster:

  • reticent: not revealing one’s thoughts or feelings readily.
  • reluctant: unwilling and hesitant; disinclined.

Now, about the words in general, from World Wide Words:

We are indeed witnessing an extension in sense that has been developing over the past four decades or so, originally in the US but now widely in the English-speaking world. While researching this answer a few days ago, I found an example of the related noun in the Guardian, a British newspaper: “Theatre critics habitually complain about artistic directors’ reticence to tackle untried repertoire.” A few US dictionaries have begun to notice it (recent American Heritage and Merriam-Webster, once regarded as dangerously permissive by purists, now note it as a subsidiary sense), though style guides suggest that it should be avoided and many language watchers are vociferous in disliking it.

Hmmm. So far, four points for Dad. His definitions match with the dictionary and the consensus of the “language watchers.” Now for the etymologies, from the Online Etymology Dictionary:

  • reticent: from Latin reticentia "silence, a keeping silent," from present participle stem of reticere "keep silent"
  • reluctant: "unwilling," 1660s, from Latin reluctantem (nominative reluctans), present participle of reluctari "to struggle against, resist, make opposition," from re- "against" (see re-) + luctari "to struggle, wrestle"

I think that’s two more points for Pops. I’m with him and the “language watchers (who) are vociferous in disliking it.” The difference might be subtle to some, but looking at the definitions and etymologies, I think we should try to use the words as initially intended and defined.

Kara Church

Technical Editor, Advisory

Symitar Documentation Services

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