July 6, 2013

This is a post about the shade of meaning between "laconic" and "taciturn."

There really was a place called Laconia. It's where Sparta was. The OED says "laconic" means, first,  "Characteristic of the Laconians; Spartan-like" and quotes John Adams:
1787   J. Adams Def. Constit. Govt. U.S. Pref., in Wks. (1851) IV. 287   The latest revolution that we read of, was conducted..in the Grecian style, with laconic energy.
But that's not the meaning we want. We want definition #2, from the (unlinkable) OED: "Following the Laconian manner, esp. in speech and writing; brief, concise, sententious. Of persons: Affecting a brief style of speech." Example:
1888   A. K. Green Behind Closed Doors iii. 28   ‘Trust me’ was his laconic rejoinder.
Now, "taciturn" — an adjective based on "tacit" (silent) — has only one meaning: "Characterized by silence or disinclination to conversation; reserved in speech; saying little; uncommunicative." Examples:
1771   T. Smollett Humphry Clinker II. 107   Grieve..was very submissive, respectful, and remarkably taciturn.
1816   Remarks Eng. Mann. 61   The people in Europe who partake most with us in this taciturn propensity, are the Dutch.
1849   T. B. Macaulay Hist. Eng. II. vi. 68   Godolphin, cautious and taciturn, did his best to preserve neutrality.
1876   J. S. Bristowe Treat. Theory & Pract. Med. ii. vi. 852   The patient becomes apathetic, morose or taciturn, or irritable.
So if someone is laconic, he's not against communicating. He's about a certain style of communication: concision. But if someone is taciturn, he's avoiding communication. Taciturn speaks more of a personality type, and not in a good way.

40 comments:

Ann Althouse said...

I was confused by "sententious" in the definition of "laconic," because I'd understood it as a pretty negative word.

The meaning I use that word for is #4 in the OED: "Of persons: Given to the utterance of maxims or pointed sayings. Now often in bad sense, addicted to pompous moralizing."

But the meaning in the definition of "laconic" is something more like #1 "1. Full of meaning; also, of persons, full of intelligence or wisdom."

Meaning #2 is "Of the nature of a ‘sentence’ or aphoristic saying."

Note that "sententious" is based on "sentence."

The oldest meaning of "sentence," now obsolete, is " Way of thinking, opinion."

Synova said...

I'd always thought laconic meant slow in speech, rather than brief. Laid back, you know?

Sententious I think of as slow and implied pompous, so that's about right.

Taciturn I think of as "short"... as in, "he was short with me." Definitely a crabby element.

Synova said...

As an alternative to "sentence" some of what I read uses "periods" as a (supposed) Historical alternative. Or at least that's my best guess.

Mumpsimus said...

But if someone is taciturn, he's avoiding communication. Taciturn speaks more of a personality type, and not in a good way.

Not in a good way? Is "avoiding communication" one of the new sins?

I guess I'll go update my Facebook status, and tweet what I had for lunch.

Big Mike said...

The word "pithy" comes to mind when I read the word "laconic." The most famous of the Spartans laconic expressions is from Thermopylae. In response to Xerxes' demand that the Spartans surrender their weapons Leonidas replied "Molon labe" (come and take them).

ndspinelli said...

Notice how Annie links taciturn to a male characteristic by saying "he" rather than the neutral "they're."

wfgodbold said...

@Big Mike:

I think a better example is the Spartan response to Philip of Macedon's ultimatum, which was (roughly) "If I conquer you, you will be slaves."

The Spartan answer?

"If."

Bob said...

"ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ"

Richard Dolan said...

Laconia is also a place in New Hampshire. Laconic describes an old Yankee's way of communicating perfectly. Anyone who grew up north of Boston will recognize the sound. But it can easily become taciturn, too. Just compare Robert Frost and Cal Coolidge to see how.

deborah said...

I appreciate taciturnity. No need to always jabber.

edutcher said...

One speaks or writes, but not much; one don't.

Ann Althouse said...

I was confused by "sententious" in the definition of "laconic," because I'd understood it as a pretty negative word.

Depends.

Used a lot to describe characters in Westerns or people from the West embodying the more legendary attributes.

Kelly said...

Spartans were Spartan with their speech, but they were known for giving zingers when they did speak. Many of these are known from Plutarch's Saying of Spartans.

Whereas I would say taciturn describes someone who just doesn't speak much at all, rather than one who chooses their few words carefully.

Hammond X Gritzkofe said...

There really was a place called Laconia. It's where Sparta was.

Gosh, I didn't know they'd moved it.

Dr Weevil said...

Here's my favorite example of Laconism - I forget where I read it:

Therer was a famine in Sparta due to bad weather, so they sent an ambassador to an allied country that owed them favors. He was taken to their ruling council, where he held up an empty grain-sack and said "Empty". When he got home he was criticized for using one word too many.

rhhardin said...

Laconic is the cowboy.

Taciturn is the girl in school who never says anything.

Marc said...

I don't think I agree with the "not in a good way" comment on 'taciturn'. Not every circumstance requires lengthy communication, nor does every encounter with another person remain meaningless because there are no words exchanged. (Although it is true enough, I'll admit, that taciturn and 'sour' with its synonyms seem to be used together in novels.) Godolphin is attempting to preserve his neutrality and is, therefore, cautious and taciturn. The patient is by turns apathetic, morose, taciturn and irritable-- since her illness; hale and well, she was engaging, cheerful, bubbly.

Edmund said...

The Spartans also had a large Lambda on their shields, for Lacedaemon, as the area was known then. Today, it has a bit different meaning.

One of my favorite Spartan rejoinders: when he was told the Persians had so many archers that their arrows would blot out the sun, Leoniadas replied: "Then we shall fight in the shade."

Edmund said...

The Spartans also had a large Lambda on their shields, for Lacedaemon, as the area was known then. Today, it has a bit different meaning.

One of my favorite Spartan rejoinders: when he was told the Persians had so many archers that their arrows would blot out the sun, Leoniadas replied: "Then we shall fight in the shade."

Marc said...

Synova, 'Period' is from the Greek and was first (in the context of language) used to refer to a coherent grammatical arrangement of words i.e. more or less what we mean in English by 'sentence'. Sometime in the later Middle Ages it began to be applied to the punctuation sign marking the end of a sentence. Thus far my memory; AA can check that out in the OED, probably.

Jeff Teal said...

Laconic implies the strong silent type like John Wayne.Taciturn implies the overly repressed type like a silent John Barrymore.One is to be emulated.One is not.Think Stagecoach.

The Godfather said...

Taciturn is not always a bad thing. As a lawyer, I've had to spend a lot of time with other lawyers, and we are, frankly, a loquacious lot. Finding one who is taciturn would be a blessing. According to the new biography of Calvin Coolidge, during his early days practicing law, many of his clients and colleagues greatly appreciated his taciturnity. The prosecutor in the Zimmerman trial would, I think, have been very grateful if Dr. Bao had been taciturn.

Peter Hoh said...

Taciturn sounds stern.

Phil 3:14 said...

Laconic is the left-handed pitcher from rural Kentucky who throws a nasty slider and now in his 3rd season with an ERA below 2.50 and a win/loss percentage the envy of the league give an "aw shucks" response to the accolades of the mass of reporters and a "throw 'em where they can't hit 'em" response to the question: "How do you do it?"


(I saw that in a movie somewhere. I think only southerners are allowed to be laconic.)

William said...

Calvin Coolidge is always described as taciturn never as laconic. Cowboys are laconic, and Yankees are taciturn.

Roughcoat said...

Taciturn is not a bad thing. My father's immigrant German family was comprised of taciturn men and women: the male members were men of few words, but when they spoke, the words meant something. It was considered a virtue in my family to be taciturn, which was the opposite of bing a run-at-the-mouth talker, a big mouth, a bullshitter. Taciturn men were thought to be the strong, silent type: modest, unassuming, stalwart, steadfast, uncomplaining, dependable. That what taciturn meant in my family.

Roughcoat said...

"Taciturn implies the overly repressed type"? Not so. Laconic does not imply the "strong, silent type"; that's taciturn. Laconic is a personality trait, a way of expressing yourself, a type of humor: wry and to the point; dry; a little sardonic.

Roughcoat said...

Cowboys can be laconic but are customarily taciturn. In other words: they don't say much; but when they say something, they say it laconically, with wry humor.

From Inwood said...

On the third hand, some people are just dull & inarticulate.

On the fourth hand, some people are insecure & afraid to speak much when they feel that they are among their Betters

Roger J. said...

Does not "taciturn" come from the writings of Tacitus? Brillant histories (in the Annals) of early imperial Rome. Tacitus was a believer in the republic and took every chance to demean the Julian emperors. eg: "Rome creates a wasteland and call it a peace."

I think the meaning of taciturn has changed over the centuries, and agree it does now have a rather negative connotation.

Interesting thread--much better than abortion and SSM

Balfegor said...

Hmm. "Taciturn" for me is a little different from what it is for Synova. Rather than crabbiness, it gives me a sense of stony silence, with faint overtones of sullenness.

"Laconic" is just someone who, when he talks at all, talks little.

Quaestor said...

Shades of meaning did you say? Not hardly. These words are not synonyms or even nearly so. To be laconic is to speak in a condensed, pithy and ironic manner -- few words saying much, and often not flattering to the hearer. Taciturn just means to remain silent or reluctant to speak often with a hint of passive-aggressive truculence to boot.

The best laconic speech is memorable and infinitely quotable. Laconic speech is an intellectual achievement; it is active. To be taciturn one must simply not do.

Laconic speech is not pompous, it's just the opposite. It is meant to deflate pomposity and boastfulness with a quick and accurate thrust of the verbal rapier. Examples:

Mardonius boasts his archers will blot out the sun with their arrows. Leonidas replies that the Spartans will enjoy the shade on a hot day.

The Athenian derisively asks the Spartan why his sword is so short. "It is long enough to reach your heart," replies the Laconian

Xerxes offers to spare the lives of all the Greeks blocking the Persians' way at Thermopylae if they would only surrender their arms and armor and depart in peace. The Spartan reply, "Molon labe," come and take them.

Chip S. said...

There's really still a place called Laconia. It's in NH, near Lake Winnipesaukee.

I once knew a girl from Laconia. She threw her attractive self at me on a beach, and I caught her with both hands.

Ever since then I have been polite to willing women, but only if they swallow. That way I know my splooge is safe.

Roger J. said...

Queastor: how would describe the sayings of Tacitus--again in the Annals--seems to me he can be both taciturn and laconic--You seem to be grounded in the classics so I would appreciate your thoughts.

Quaestor said...

It's hard to judge whether Tacitus was indeed taciturn since we only have his writings, or more precisely fragments of his writings. It's hard to be taciturn on paper. Many writers are taciturn, preferring the pen to the tongue, or should I say many writers ought to prefer the pen. His style is certainly laconic in that his Latin is so clear -- simple and direct. Any good classics student with a semester or two can read him. Annals are not condensed in the laconic style, however. Compactness of style was Cicero's forte; by structuring the syntax so meaningfully he reduced his actual word count to the minimum, much to the consternation of today's readers.

Laconic speech is often ironic and elliptical. If you've ever been on the receiving end of laconic scorn you might stroll away thinking you've been complimented, that is until you think about it. Tacitus was mostly scornful of his society. "O tempora! O mores!" was Cicero, but Tacitus would have agreed though he said it differently. He was openly scornful, however, and only occasionally ironic. Seneca was more laconic. It is said he insulted Tigellinus to his face constantly, but the oaf never caught on.

It's hard to point to a laconic personality today, where everybody has an opinion on every subject, whether qualified or not, and everybody will motormouth at length given half a chance. The best modern example isn't even real. He's Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler's detective hero. Another is James Bond (as in the novels, certainly not the Roger Moore films). Not an accident, really, Fleming and Chandler were close friends, and Fleming frankly admitted Bond owed much to Marlowe.

LarsPorsena said...

When I read Thucydides it seems that the Spartans would give as many stem-winders as the Athenians.

Lezer said...

Laconic is a personality trait, a way of expressing yourself, a type of humor: wry and to the point; dry; a little sardonic.

That's what 'laconiek' has come to mean in Dutch, with an added nuance of 'calm, unperturbed'.

Sam L. said...

A "taciturn" is a very slight and infrequent movement, either left or right. Not more than 2 degrees.

Roughcoat said...

Quaestor: good comments but I disagree with your conclusion concerning the meaning of taciturn. "Ironic," as a descriptor of the laconic style was the word I was searching for, and thanks for including it; but, as stated, I would include "wry."

I agree with Lezer: the Dutch interpretation is the correct one.

"Laconia" was the name of geographical area in the Peloponnesus wherein the polity/political entity of Lacedaemon was situated; Sparta was the capital of Lacedaemon.

Joe said...

Taciturn speaks more of a personality type, and not in a good way.

Once again, the extrovert declares that any sign of introversion is a sign of mental illness which must be eradicated.

Quaestor said...

Historically, there is laconic style as in speech (which is mostly what English speaker intend when using the adjective) and there is laconic manner. The Spartans did not fight for love of fighting, they were not a warrior people like the contemporary Gauls or the Germans. They did not admire individual heroics, nor was there anyone like a Spartan berserker. The classical way of fighting was the hoplite phalanx, and the Spartans were simply the best practitioners of that tactic. Individual heroics, displays of personal prowess, these were disruptive of the iron discipline which made the phalanx so formidable. If a phalanx kept it cohesion and anchored it flanks on some impassable feature of the terrain (such as a step grade on the left and the sea on the right, as at Thermopylae) the formation was well-nigh unbeatable, as Xerxes discovered. The tactic had weaknesses, of course. The Spartan way of life was intended to minimize those weakness. Most poleis put their most capable soldiers on the right, leaving the left to the weaker and inexperienced citizens, and ever since classical times the position on the right has been prestigious (If the Jacobites had not argued about which clan had claim to the rightmost position on the field of Culloden today's British monarch might be a Stuart.) This habit of putting the stronger on the right exacerbated the weakness of the phalanx. The Spartan way was to make the phalanx equally strong along it length. To do this they forbade anything that might disrupt discipline, no warrior displays -- no war cries, no brandishing of arms, no unnecessary talking (the hoplite helmet made it difficult to hear orders), no breaking of ranks under any circumstances. The Spartan soldier was not to fight in anger. Clam determination was the laconic manner.