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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'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:

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.