What does ‘restive’ mean?

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Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: restive….

I started subscribing to the New Yorker magazine back in 1993, shortly after Tina Brown (pictured above) had become its editor. While I’d found much of her work at Vanity Fair as too celebrity-driven (two cover photographs of Demi Moore was at least one too many for me), I enjoyed the liveliness Brown sparked at the New Yorker. I also welcomed many of the new writers she brought to the fold, including  David Remnick, Anthony Lane, Jeffrey Toobin and  John Lahr.

Now, as the author of a book called The Vanity Fair Diaries: 1983-1992 Brown reflects on her near decade’s worth of experience at the helm of that ship. And, predictably, The New Yorker reviews her book in a brightly written piece by Nathan Heller. But what caused me to sit up and pay attention was a word that I’d seen many times before but never truly understood. That word is, restive. Here is how Heller used it:

In 1982, it [the Tatler] was bought by Condé Nast, and Brown, restless and restive, left.

Judging by the context, I assumed it meant “restless,” which is exactly what I assumed the dozens of other times I’d read it. But this time I decided to look it up. Restive is an adjective meaning, “unable to keep still or silent and becoming increasingly difficult to control, especially because of impatience, dissatisfaction, or boredom.” In other words, restless.

In researching the origins of this word, I stumbled across the wonderful World Wide Words website and discovered that restive now means more or less the reverse of what it used to denote. For several centuries, it meant: inactive or inert, more resting than restless. Blogger Michael Quinion reports that:

“Restive arrived in the fifteenth century from the French word now spelled rétif, ultimately from Latin restare, to rest. In its first incarnation it was spelled restiff and meant a horse that resisted control and in particular refused to move forwards when commanded. Restiff remained in the language until the nineteenth century. At the very end of the sixteenth century a variant form evolved from it in the modern spelling of restive, with a sense of being still or sluggish. This spelling and sense likewise stayed in the language into the nineteenth century. To confuse matters, by the middle of the seventeenth century, restive had borrowed the main sense of restiff, a stubborn refusal of a horse to do what it was told.”

During the latter part of the nineteenth century, however, Quinion says the skittishness and wild movements that often resulted from the refusal of a horse to obey caused restive to acquire the new meaning of “fidgety” or “impatient”.

An earlier version of this post first appeared on my blog on Nov. 29/17.

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