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April 30, 2013

I was listening to Jamie Cullum’s jazz programme on Radio 2 this evening as I was driving along in my car, and he introduced a track by saying ‘I was a bit reticent to play this one at first…’ A moment later he said: ‘I was reticent about playing it because…’

I’m hearing this mistake a lot these days. Reticent does not mean reluctant. It means reluctant to speak. Reserved. Shy about revealing thoughts and feelings. Unforthcoming.

But I suppose if reticent continues to be mis-used in this way it will eventually collapse into a synonym for reluctant, and do another word’s duty instead of its own. I always think it’s a pity when the meanings of words change in this way, so that we have two words for one thing instead of two words for two things. I suppose I can see why it is happening: reluctant and reticent sound fairly similar and the concepts they express are not a million miles apart. Also reticent is used less commonly than reluctant. Its meaning is therefore not kept in such good repair. I hear more incorrect usages of the word than correct ones now, so it’s probably too late to resist the change. Still, it is a pity.

Cullum redeemed himself to some extent by saying that Herbie Hancock was ‘a total beast’ on piano on the track, which I do think is a great expression.

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