Reticence is golden

The words “reticent” and “reticence” are sometimes misused. To be reticent is to be disinclined to speak. You may think of a taciturn, uncommunicative person when you hear or read the word “reticent.” The word suggests someone who is habitually silent, but it can apply to an instance of unwillingness to speak. The dictionary says “reticence” is akin to “reserve,” an unwillingness express oneself.

Sometimes, though, we use the word when what we actually mean is “reluctant” or “reluctance.” After hearing from a reader about this particular misuse, I searched for some examples, turning up at least one in a piece of copy that I probably edited.

Here is an example from an N&O column in May: The school board, to its credit, is mulling switching elementary and middle schools to a year-round schedule, but its reticence about getting on the bad foot with thousands of parents and business owners may cause it to shrink — as it has in the past — from doing the right thing. The writer is describing the board’s reluctance, that is, its disinclination or unwillingness, to get on the bad side of parents and business owners.

Here is another example from a column in May 2004: The gay lifestyle and the very idea of someone being legally and religiously bound in matrimony to someone of the same sex are especially confounding to foothills people, who view almost any change with reticence and are more Bible-belted than average. I think reluctance would have been better here, too. I don’t think the writer means that the foothills people have an unwillingness to speak as much as an unwillingness to accept. Perhaps they view almost any change with caution or even dread.

But we sometimes get it right. Here is an example, also from May 2004: Meanwhile, Orr displayed a new reticence at a Republican rally in Charlotte last week featuring President Bush. While all the other GOP appellate judges got a few moments to speak to the crowd of 5,000, Orr remained glued to his seat and said nary a word.

After reading these examples, I myself will be more aware of “reticent” and “reticence.” I am glad the reader raised this issue.

The Language Corner, a feature of the Columbia Journalism Review, offers an explanation of “reticent” and “reluctant.”

This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.