Should I be reluctant or reticent to spend my savings on a new car? Am I reticent or recalcitrant to talk about a friend’s personal problems? The strength of writing what is called expository prose—the kind of writing about facts that most of us do most of the time—lies in making precise distinctions, and that involves choosing the right word with just the right shade of meaning. So what is the difference between being reluctant, reticent, or recalcitrant?
To be reluctant means to be hesitant over, to struggle against an action or idea that confronts us. The word luctor in Latin, from which the English adjective reluctant derives, means exactly that, to strive or struggle (the re– in reluctant means against), and so if I am reluctant to spend my savings, I am struggling against the idea of doing so. I could also be averse to that same idea, which means in its own derivation to be turned from the idea (the Latin verto means turn), or I could even be loath to spend my savings, suggesting an even stronger repugnance, for something that is loathful is downright hateful.
But can I be reticent to spend my cash? This word often bends toward being an adjective for reluctant, but it is better helped to stand up proudly for the unique meaning it carries all by itself. To be reticent means to be reserved or restrained in expression, not to be reluctant to do something. This adjective too has an interesting heritage: its letters t-i-c are related to the Latin verb taceo, to be silent, to not speak, and so we can see where we might confuse reticent and reluctant: if I am reticent in talking about a friend’s personal problems, I am restrained or reserved in doing so; but to be restrained is one thing, to be reluctant quite another, for I might not be struggling at all in not wishing to talk about someone else’s difficulties. Then again, I might have a bit of the gossip in me and in fact be struggling over being reticent, and this ambiguity is exactly why the two adjectives are often confused.
Now being recalcitrant is another problem altogether. This adjective has an especially interesting origin, and its linguistic roots make its use easy to remember. The letters c-a-l-c in the word come from a Latin noun meaning heel, like the heel of your foot, and that Latin noun produced, likely enough, the Latin verb calcitrare, meaning to kick. Add the same re- prefix we’ve seen in the other two adjectives, and the adjective recalcitrant means to be defiant against authority, or, in the sphere of medicine, to be resistant, not responsive to treatment. If I’m defiant against authority, I’m kicking back against it, as far as the adjective recalcitrant is concerned. But it would be difficult to see how I could be recalcitrant in talking about someone’s problems, for the authority telling me not to do that would lie nowhere else but in myself.
The history of words, what is called their etymology, holds a charm whose spell most of us come under to one degree or another (although I did know a student once who protested that the whole project held no interest for him whatsoever), perhaps in the same way that our personal ancestry is compelling. For us as writers, though, quickly glancing at the etymological information in a dictionary can give us a rich supply of images that we can incorporate into our sentences. And if we combine that resource with a good thesaurus, a dictionary of synonyms, we have most of what we need to fit and fashion a word to the context—everything, that is, except that one thing we need more than anything else: to read and read and read.