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Vocab Lab: Color Me Nonplussed

"I've been really happy by how nonplussed they've been by the whole thing." -- Barack Obama on his daughters' response to the presidential campaign, People, Aug. 4, 2008

It seems even Harvard graduate/widely acknowledged smart guy/President-Elect Barack Obama doesn't know the meaning of the word nonplussed. He's in good company. I'd wager more people get "nonplussed" wrong than right — frequently going so far as to use the word to express nearly the opposite of what they mean. As the misuse of nonplussed threatens to overwhelm the proper use, we feel duty-bound to set the record straight.

Fellow word nerd and Podictionary host Charles Hodgson cites UrbanDictionary.com's assessment that nonplussed is "often misused as meaning unfazed, but actually means bewildered." (Reflecting on his fruitless search for the mythical plussed, Hodgson ventures, "So if people thought nonplussed meant 'unfazed' or 'oblivious,' wouldn't plussed logically mean 'fazed' and 'blivious?' Well, I guess not.")

But where Hodgson has done me a personal favor is in revealing: "The reason that nonplussed means 'bewildered' is that it more literally means 'stopped in your tracks.' Nonplus means you can't go forward, just like its components non and plus might suggest." Non, of course, is French for "no"; plus is French for "more." Thus if you are nonplussed, you can go no farther; you stand at a crossroads, stymied. Such circumstances do tend to perplex.

Now that I've made the connection between being unable to proceed and being nonplussed — ain't etymology grand? — I'm free to use the word with impunity. To reinforce my (and hopefully your) newfound freedom, please enjoy this very special guest appearance by the Big Kahuna, the capo di tutti capi ... the Oxford English Dictionary:

Brought to a nonplus or standstill; at a nonplus; perplexed, confounded.
1606 W. WARNER Albions Eng. XIV. lxxxix. 363 So many Incantations, lyes, feares, hopes instanced shee, ..As lastly did the non-plust Nunne vnto her Charmes agree. 1826 J. WILSON Noctes Ambrosianae in Wks. (1855) I. 140 [He] stares round the company with his vacant and nonplussed eyes. 1828 T. CARLYLE Crit. & Misc. Ess. (1857) I. 137 ?Blown up? by nonplussed and justly exasperated Review-reviewers! 1886 E. L. BYNNER Agnes Surriage xvii, She swept from the room, leaving the nonplussed artist to puzzle over the cause of her..behavior. 1938 E. BOWEN Death of Heart III. ii. 354 By coming in, however, she had brought whatever there was to a nonplussed pause. 1975 M. RUSSELL Murder by Mile x. 106 He saw Vanessa standing in a nonplussed attitude at the closed door. 1993 U. CHATTERJEE Last Burden (1994) i. 7 Her pitted and usually nonplussed face becomes even more befuddled whenever she hears English.

Leave it to the OED to add:

DERIVATIVES
nonplussedness n. rare
1972 K. BONFIGLIOLI Don't point that Thing at Me iv. 35 To hide my *non-plussedness I ordered Jock to make coffee. 1996 Newcastle Herald (Austral.) 17 Aug., Nonplussed that pelma wasn't in my lexicographic bible.., I wrote to its editor for comfort in my nonplussedness [don't even get us started on "pelma"].

We expect the post-Bush White House to present Obama with regular opportunities for nonplussedness. As for his daughters, he recently illustrated an instance of potential nonplussedness for his first born. In the mini-documentary Four Days in Denver: Behind the Scenes at the 2008 DNC, Michelle Obama tells Barack that she's going to be a guest on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and that since the Jonas Brothers are also scheduled to appear, she's taking Malia and Sasha along. Malia, it seems, is enamored of Nick Jonas. After accepting a low-five from Michelle and confirming, "That's big," he says:

I've got a bet with Malia ... She's been talking about how when she sees her Jonas Brothers favorite ... Nick ... she's going to be all sophisticated. I said, "Malia, I will bet you five dollars that you will stammer and not have anything to say when you see Nick." And she's all, "No, no ... I'm sure I'll say, 'I'm a really big fan' ... [and that] I really enjoy his music." And I [said], "You won't say that; you'll be, like, 'Ah ... ah ... ah.'"

In that circumstance, he implies, at least one of his daughters would, in fact, be nonplussed.

Obama's campaign, meanwhile, may have been nonplussed by the undecided voters still lurking about as Nov. 4 loomed — operatives and volunteers were at a loss; what more could they say at that point? The undecided were themselves apparently nonplussed (they couldn't select a candidate and therefore may have been unable to proceed to the voting booth).

Fortunately, we can all now move on — which is a definite plus.


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Julia Rubiner is a partner in Editorial Emergency, a Los Angeles copy shop specializing in content manufacturing and brand communications for entertainment, lifestyle and nonprofit concerns. She is also a personal-branding consultant, writing resumes, LinkedIn summaries and executive bios, among other tools, for people in creative fields who want to advance their careers. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, she was an editor of reference publications. Rubiner wears the label "word nerd" as a badge of honor. Click here to read more articles by Julia Rubiner.

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Comments from our users:

Monday November 17th 2008, 8:05 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Hi folks, let's not use the comments section for political rants or other inappropriate remarks, which will be deleted. Let's keep the discussion to words and usage!
Monday November 17th 2008, 8:25 AM
Comment by: Joyce S.
It really brought a smile to my face to have the OED referred to as the Big Kahuna (should this be capitalized?) and the capo di tutti capi! Thanks for starting my day off right!
Monday November 17th 2008, 9:30 AM
Comment by: Jon D. (King of Prussia, PA)
I took nonplussed to mean what Obama thought it meant as well. At what point do we need to rip a word from its roots and transplant it based on contemporary utilization?

Let's say I'm in a communications meeting, and our VP of Communications uses nonplussed as Obama used it... and most people in the meeting understood what she meant because of the common misuse of the term, compounded by the contextual clues that reinforced the common misuse.

What then? Is it someone's responsibility to pull her aside and tell her that, although she effectively communicated her point to the intended recipients, she did so at the expense of etymological accuracy?

Or, does the very fact that my VP (and, for that matter, Obama) used it in a way that did not confuse intended recipients tell us that the word has moved on, and it's time let go of its past and embrace the future?

In other words, when should the traditional definition of nonplussed be... nonplussed?
Monday November 17th 2008, 10:24 AM
Comment by: Ellen M.
Great post, very well said.

I have to respond to Jon's comment - I can't support adopting a common abuse of the language just because it's become common. Those who have a good grasp of the language need to prop it up, not tear it down (although I'm stumped on how you tell your boss she just used an incorrect term in front of a group of people - I'll punt on that one).
Monday November 17th 2008, 10:58 AM
Comment by: K
Most VPs would be hard-pressed to misuse a word that long. I'd say it counts as literacy.
Monday November 17th 2008, 12:11 PM
Comment by: Jon D. (King of Prussia, PA)
It's not just "my VP" (which was hypothetical) and Obama. There is a lot of activity around the evolution of meaning around this word:

http://www.randomhouse.com/wotd/index.pperl?date=19991221
http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/nonplussed
http://www.askoxford.com/concise_oed/nonplussed?view=uk

Some additional editorial around another time Obama "misused" the word:
http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/la-oe-daum9-2008aug09,0,4695540.column

And a great article & conversation around the term at the venerable Language Log:
http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=453

I am intrigued by the clarity Ellen and Keith appear to have around word usage and definitions. Surely there have been words that have evolved from their original meanings in the past? Ellen and Keith - at what point with other "word routes" have you accepted new definitions that parted from the original meaning?
Monday November 17th 2008, 1:19 PM
Comment by: Phil K. (West Vancouver Canada)
I frequently struggle with the issue Jon D raised above. Some years ago, during end of season hockey playoffs, I heard a sports reporter earnestly declare that the local team were hoping to play "their penultimate game of hockey tonight". From the context, it appeared that he imagined that "penultimate" signified some form of super superlative. Like Ellen, I see no reason to join his chorus of ill-literate misuse, no matter how popular or commonplace it may become.

On the other hand, Language is social and evolutionary, and a squinting exactitude towards other folk's usage is seldom endearing, much less persuasive.

In the largely democratic social system that is language, each use of a word influences the evolution of our collective understanding of its meaning. But surely there is some significant distinction to be drawn between the gradual mutation of meaning through inflection, tangential re-direction and parallel associations, on the one hand, and wholesale reversal of meaning resulting from innocent mis-spoken error (as doubtless was the case being discussed here) - or worse, pretentious displays of ignorance - on the other.

My own practice is to attempt to use words in a manner that an authoritative dictionary reports them to be currently used and understood, and to draw attention to evident errors gently and privately - as in that wonderful scene in The Princess Bride, when the Spaniard finally looks around at the umpteenth exclamation of "Inconceivable!" and gently observes, "I don't think that word means what you think it means."
Monday November 17th 2008, 2:07 PM
Comment by: Dan K.
So Phil K & Jon D

Would it be safe to say form both your posts that the evolution of language occurs - and ought to occur irregardless of "authoritative" definition, however, the pace of said evolution ought not to be determine by wikipedia, "innocent mis-spoken" or "ill-literate" speakers?

And before the hounds come out, "irregardless" was intentional use of common linguistic barbarity, to prove the point.
Monday November 17th 2008, 2:41 PM
Comment by: K
Jon D. asked:

> Surely there have been words that have evolved from their original meanings in the past?
> Ellen and Keith - at what point with other "word routes" have you accepted new definitions
> that parted from the original meaning?

I'm a novelist, not a linguist, so questions of taxonomic boundary conditions don't interest me very much. I'm also not interested in conserving existing language.

I probably wouldn't use "nonplussed" at all in a novel because too many people would get the wrong idea--or at least feel confusion, which isn't what I'm after. I want my readers to either know it or know they don't know it.

If I chose to use "nonplussed" to express "unfazed," the problem would be even worse, because most of my more literate readers would be confused, then irked, and then they'd write me letters, and who wants that kind of human contact? I live in a hole with WiFi and have no social skills or muscle tone.

Anyway--I don't think this word can be seen as having evolved yet. So far, I think the misuse is still misuse. At what point the state change occurs, I can't say, but using nothing but my personal sense of language as reference, I don't think it's happened.
Monday November 17th 2008, 5:34 PM
Comment by: Jon D. (King of Prussia, PA)
Keith,

I think your anecdote points to a serious problem: "Nonplussed" is so contemporarily counter-defined that it is no longer eligible for your novels!

What good is a word if it can no longer be used? I'm no linguist, but if I were to define what a "word" is, I would say it is a term that exists to convey a clear meaning, consistently.

With the evolved definition of "nonplussed" so at odds with the original meaning that it creates more confusion than clarity, I could argue that it is no longer a word. It has been demoted to jargon.
Monday November 17th 2008, 6:14 PM
Comment by: Magda Pecsenye
Jon D., wait--what's the difference between a word and jargon, then?

Can't I blame this on Apple somehow, and the funnest iPod ever?

Keith, I will give you $100 if you name your next novel "Nonplussed."
Monday November 17th 2008, 6:15 PM
Comment by: Laqueta W. (Norman, OK)
The majority of parents would be delighted to have their kids nonplussed.
On occasion, kids are perplexed and puzzled; even kids can be bewildered, not knowing what to say about something enigmatic to them.

Ah! Now the parent can strike with his/her rules of
deportment and explanation of that which nonplussed the kids. (The human element is still in force.)

Perhaps Obama had a plan to keep the kids in a state shy of suspended animation--but with deportment.

Nonetheless, nonplus is a word in evolution, but not many are aware.

Word meaning does not change like: All English speakers did not go to bed on the night of Dec. 31, 1065, speaking Old English and wake the morning of Jan. 01, 1066,
saying, "Let's talk Middle English now!"
Monday November 17th 2008, 8:01 PM
Comment by: Dana H. (Ottawa Canada)
With all due respect to Ben's guidance above:
if we had let the "common usage evolvers" win over the "proper usage sticklers", we'd all be saying "nuke-you-lar" by now !
Monday November 17th 2008, 11:20 PM
Comment by: Ariel D.
As I analyzed that quote, I came up with a question: Could that have been a sarcastic comment? I mean, why not? Maybe he was trying to be humoristic. If one knew what “nonplussed” meant from the beginning, I’m sure someone would have laughed. I would have.

I don’t know. Regardless of how one sees it, I laughed after looking up the word, and reading that quote one more time. And, now, I’m seriously nonplussed to have read this article. :-)
Tuesday November 18th 2008, 11:16 AM
Comment by: Michael H.
Reticent as reluctant is another one commonly misused. I was nonplussed at how endemic its misuse was among journalists. ;-)
Tuesday November 18th 2008, 11:48 AM
Comment by: K
Jon, experience suggests that anything a VP says is jargon. (And anything a VP says that you understood...no you didn't.)

Magda, your offer to double my advances has been noted.
Tuesday November 18th 2008, 12:09 PM
Comment by: Lyn P.
Delightful to know I really knew what 'nonplussed' meant and why I become confused when a writer uses it meaning something quite different from my understanding. Quel surprise! Guess that means it's okay for me to continue relying on my somewhat 'Swiss cheese like' memory *G*! Great word for creating confusion in readers...wish I could think of a way to use it professionally. There's a place for creating confusion/mis-direction...just watch/read ads *G*!
Thursday November 20th 2008, 3:54 PM
Comment by: Elissa S. (New York, NY)
Here's another example of the misuse of the word "nonplussed":

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/20/fashion/20chicago.html?em
Thursday November 20th 2008, 4:13 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Here's the relevant passage in the New York Times article Elissa linked to:
Jeff Tweedy, the leader of the band Wilco who grew up in downstate Illinois and lives in Chicago, said the city never felt the inferiority complex that outsiders spend so much time musing about. Still, he said, the election of Mr. Obama, a friend for years, has given an unusual boost of confidence in a city that is usually nonplussed.

That certainly doesn't mean "bewildered" in that context, but it's not exactly "unfazed" either. More like "unexcited" perhaps?

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