Which Word Wednesday: Reluctant vs. Reticent

By February 2, 2011 language No Comments

To err is human.

Just don’t err around some linguists. They get rather crabby when people use irregardless or heighth or unloosen.

The fear of using the wrong word in the presence a crabby linguist can make people rather tongue-tied. I know this, because recently several dear friends have commented that they worry about their speech around me. [gulp.] Boy, that certainly isn’t my intent!

How would we describe these speakers? Are they reluctant or are they reticent to speak in my presence?

That’s our match-up for this week’s Which Word Wednesday. Here’s how the Oxford American Dictionary defines them:

reluctant :: adjective
unwilling and hesitant; disinclined

reticent :: adjective
not revealing one’s thoughts or feelings readily

Both are adjectives implying that something is being held back. Recent usage—creating quite a fuss among linguists—employs these words as synonyms, as in: I was reticent to commit to the course or I was reluctant to share my love for him.

According to Mark Davidson in Right, Wrong, and Risky: A Dictionary of Today’s American English Usage: Contrary to widespread misusage, reticent has a narrower meaning than reluctant. Reticent—originating in the Latin reticere (“to keep silent”)—means ‘reluctant to speak.’ ”1

That aligns with the OAD definition, which reserves reticent for keeping mum.

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What’s my WWW verdict? When folks get nervous speaking around me, I think they are reticent because they worry that one improper word will spark the fury of this word nerd. [ha!]

But let me assure you, dear ones: I may love words, but I err quite often. I’m just a word nerd who finds language fascinating. I have no interest in monitoring the speech of others, so please speak freely!

What’s your verdict? Are reluctant and reticent synonyms? Does my presence cause reticence? Share your comments and be sure to cast your vote in the poll.

Check out previous Which Word Wednesday verdicts here.

1. Mark Davidson, Right, Wrong, and Risky: A Dictionary of Today’s American English Usage (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006), 458.

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