Sunday, August 29, 2010

Channeling Norm Crosby

Learning language is often like a huge game of telephone. We hear someone else put something in a certain way, and we say it that way too, passing on the usage to others and reinforcing it. When it works right this process teaches us about usage and builds living language. But sometimes it goes off the rails. We don't generally stop and check an authoritative source to see whether the usage is correct. In print, that's what editors are for.

A misusage becoming increasingly common in street speech and creeping into print is the substitution of "reticent" for "reluctant," seen in the Courier here and here in the last week.

"Reticent" means "inclined to silence" or "uncommunicative in speech." Try plugging that meaning into this phrase: "Solop is reticent to narrow the potential field of winners." This construction is common, but it's nonsense. (Red flag: "Reticent to" is always wrong.)

Watch out for situations where two words sound similar and have related meanings. In this case "reticent" can be taken to mean "reluctant to speak," and away you go.


Javelina 13 said...

Alas for code shifts... M-W 10th gives "reluctant" as a synonym for reticent, in the third-place definition.

M-W, we also know, prides itself on reflecting the spoken language, rather than trying to bind it to hoary standards. Sometimes this blows up in their corporate face. M-W online gave three pronunciations (with audio!) for "nuclear":
and (you KNEW it!)

This state of affairs obtained (now, there's a word that's lurched off its foundation) for a month or two after I first noticed it. Then I went to show it to a friend, and they'd taken down the georgebushian pronounciamentation.

Probably because of the outraged howls of the phonics crowd, no?

Steven Ayres said...

It's also the editor's job to understand the difference between prescriptive and descriptive dictionaries.

As for that particular Bushism, I blame Jimmy Carter. He's never been able to get "nuclear" right, and even commanded a nuclear-powered submarine. It's an example of how a mistake by an authoritative figure (or publication) can become authoritative usage. Everything we put into print matters because someone is learning the language from it.