Reluctant to give up the meaning of “reticent”

Dictionary.com’s word of the day today is “reticent.” They list three definitions for it, but the one that pissed me off was the third one: “reluctant”. Reticent means “reluctant TO SPEAK,” not just “reluctant” to do anything, but it’s misused that way all the time. A lot of my students think I’m some sort of language Nazi because I count off when they misspell “separate” or write “could of”. Actually, they lose a lot more points by failing to express themselves clearly or correctly, but they don’t usually see that as “English,” but rather as “content”. I do sometimes hear students saying that they had the right answer, but just didn’t say it the way I wanted them to. This is true, if by “the way I wanted them to” you mean “correctly.” I once had a student come to complain about her grade on an exam, and indignantly show me a similar question on her friend’s test from a previous semester, for which I’d given her friend full credit.
“My answer had all the same words in it!”

It was true. It was as if she had taken her friend’s correct answer, put it in a blender, and poured the resulting smoothie onto the exam. I had to point out that word order does some of the work of conveying meaning in English, so that, for instance, “the gene codes for the protein” doesn’t mean the same thing as “the protein codes for the gene.”

Anyway, back to my current curmudgeonliness: I know that language changes, and that this is both desirable and inevitable. People can profitably invent words, such as “curmudgeonliness.” What I object to is changes that impoverish language. We have a perfectly good word meaning “reluctant”; it’s “reluctant”. If we allow “reticent” to mean the same thing, we lose the ability to express the different meaning that “reticent” used to have. I want a language that enables me to say more things, in more subtly different ways, and have people understand the things I’m saying. I don’t want a language in which all meanings are carried by a single word, and the only thing you can say is “incredible!”.

Have I mentioned how much I hate the current tendency to use “off of” to substitute for practically any preposition? Grrr.

6 Responses to “Reluctant to give up the meaning of “reticent””

  1. kicking_k says:

    My current annoyance is “It’s not that big of a deal”.

    True, I’ve never heard anyone say it out loud, but I see it written all the time.

    Or there’s the Scottish tendency, prevalent among people of my age and younger, to pronounce the word “definitely” as “DEfinNATEly”. No wonder people spell it wrong!

    I’m an English teacher’s daughter, so I have an excuse for curmudgeonliness (that is to say, I can’t help it).

  2. Allen says:

    What, people put the emphasis on the third syllable? They really are going out of their way to be wrong.

    My pet peeve these days is the misuse of the conditional: “If I would have known you were coming, I would have baked a cake.” It seems none of my students can distinguish between the “if” and “then” clauses.

    That and using “comprise” to mean “compose”.

  3. Reno says:

    “Think on” drives me batty, and it’s normal in some areas of the country…

    On the spelling front, I recently had fun pointing out to my students that “definitely” is definitely not spelled “defiantly” unless they are defiantly trying to drive me nuts (and if they are, they’re definitely succeeding).

  4. Allen says:

    I mostly see the “defiantly” one in typed stuff. I think that’s an auto spell correct error, when they’ve misspelled “definitely” somehow, and then Word decides they meant “defiantly.”

  5. kicking_k says:

    Yes, they put the emphasis on the third syllable. Perverse!

    My sister, who’s dyslexic, and recently wrote on her Facebook that she was trying to “aliviate bordem” (say it aloud!) often spells “definitely” as “definatly” – I’d be surprised if that doesn’t get autocorrected to “defiantly”.

    The misuse of the conditional isn’t so prevalent here. Fortunately.

  6. Reno says:

    Here’s a recent gem from a colleague’s student in a humanities course:

    “Work: Beowulf.
    Author: Ominous.”

    Cue creepy music now…

Leave a Reply