Silent Speaker

How “reticent” came to mean “reluctant”

In one recent news article, a buyer said he was “reticent” to participate in the “cash for clunkers” program because of all the paperwork involved. In another, children who have never heard of lacrosse were described as “reticent” to sign up to play it. And in a third article (because we journalists love to cite things in threes), a woman is described as having been “appointed de facto spokesperson by the more reticent members” of her group.

Lately, it seems, people have not been “reticent” to use “reticent” or its noun version, “reticence.” In fact, on, which describes itself as “an ongoing project devoted to discovering all the words and everything about them,” a wonderful bubble showing frequency of use shows that “reticent” has exploded in the past few years. (One of the driving forces behind Wordnik is Erin McKean, the editor of the second edition of The New Oxford American Dictionary and a wordnik extraordinaire.)

A closer look will show that “reticent” in the first two examples is used in a slightly different way than it was used in the third. In the first two examples, “reticent” was being used as a synonym for “reluctant” or “hesitant.” Each was followed by an infinitive verb, meaning those people were “reluctant” to do something. But in the third example, what were the other members of the group “hesitant” to do?

They were “hesitant” to speak publicly. And that’s the traditional usage of “reticent”: To be silent, or to be reluctant or hesitant only to say something—not reluctant or hesitant to do something.

“Reticent” is from the Latin reticens, the past participle of reticere, to be silent. A close etymological cousin of “reticent” is “tacit,” which means implied or understood without actually being spoken.

It’s easy to see how this evolution came about: Abe tells Mary he is “reticent to talk about” whether he will run for president; Mary tells Alice that Abe is “reticent about” running for president; and Alice writes that Abe is “reticent to run” for president. Pretty soon, that no-longer “reticent” usage (first noticed in the mid-twentieth century) is on the fast track to standardized English.

Most dictionaries and usage authorities note the “disputed” nature of using “reticent” when the action is not one of speech, though regular readers of this column will know how impossible it is to stop the horses once they’ve rounded the turn. And plenty of jockeys—er, writers—are using “reticent” with infinitives that have nothing to do with speech.

But, as Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says, “If you use it, do not be surprised to find yourself corrected.” Some people just can’t be reticent about it.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.