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Burma and the vocabulary of reluctance

That we don't want to do something doesn't mean that we won't eventually do it.

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Have you noticed how when you invite someone to something, and he or she responds, "Yes, I'd love to," you have to wait a millisecond to be sure that's the complete answer, and the person isn't going to say, "Yes, I'd love to, but..."? Polite discourse spends a lot of time in the conditional. Conversely, "No, I'd never do that," sometimes becomes "No, I'd never do that unless..." To be reluctant to do something is not always the same as not doing it.

Reluctance has, alas, all too tragically been in the news recently. The Burmese government has been willing to accept international aid for its cyclone-stricken citizens, but reluctant to accept international aid workers to distribute it.

English has rather a rich vocabulary of reluctance, with a number of synonyms: to be , , to do something, or even to be to do it. This last one sounds particularly ferocious, related to concepts of fearsomeness, loathsomeness, ugliness, and, of course, the related transitive verb , meaning to hate.

, rooted in , to struggle against, suggests active resistance. That same root is present in the relentlessly fatalistic-sounding , which means at bottom "that against which there is no point in struggling."

Hesitation and the words related to it are built on the ideas of irresolution, uncertainty, indecisiveness, and of a stammering tongue.

The English language developed its future tense out of expressions of volition. That's a highfalutin way of saying that "I will go" originally meant "I want to go." The implication was that if I want (desire) to go, I eventually will (future tense) go. But the link between intent and execution is not ironclad. And so all these expressions are better for describing someone's attitude than his or her precise action.

If you hear, "He is reluctant" to do whatever, you assume he hasn't done it yet but don't rule out that he might do it some time.

And then, as if we don't have enough options here, the word , from Latin meaning "tending to keep silent," is being pressed into service nowadays as well to mean "reluctant."


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