Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Perplexed by "Nonplussed" and "Bemused"

Yesterday, our "Editorial Emergency" duo of Simon Glickman and Julia Rubiner launched a salvo against a common usage of the word nonplussed, a word they "wager more people get wrong than right." That opens an interesting can of worms: if a word or phrase used to have Meaning A, but more people now use it with Meaning B, is it time for the Meaning A folks to stand aside?

In the case of nonplussed, the old meaning is "bewildered," while the new meaning is "unfazed." Simon and Julia aren't the only ones bewildered by the change of meaning. Meghan Daum, writing in the Los Angeles Times, was similarly disappointed by Barack Obama's use of the "unfazed" sense of the word when he said of his daughters' response to media scrutiny, "I've been really happy by how nonplussed they've been by the whole thing." Daum despairs, "Et tu, Obama? It seems so."

For her L.A. Times piece, Daum consulted with University Pennsylvania linguist Mark Liberman, who ended up posting his response (as well as a follow-up) on the group blog Language Log (where I also contribute). Liberman covers the historical developments well, but commenters on his post, much like those on Simon and Julia's article, were sharply divided about whether we should simply accept the new meaning of nonplussed as part of our ever-changing language.

A similar case was discussed on Sunday by Jan Freeman in her Boston Globe language column, again involving a term related to Obama. Freeman observes that "a lot of writers have thought bemused was just the right word for Barack Obama's benign, unruffled presence, especially in the debates with John McCain." As the Visual Thesaurus wordmap for bemused indicates, the two primary meanings of bemused are "deeply absorbed in thought" or "perplexed by many conflicting situations or statements." The way that political reporters have used it about Obama, however, is "above it all, with a trace of amusement," in the words of New York Times deputy news editor Philip B. Corbett. Corbett adds, "but that's not what bemused means." Well, it's not what the word has historically meant, but the newer sense, influenced by amused, has become mainstream enough to enter some dictionaries, including Merriam-Webster's Collegiate.

So here we have two words that have traditionally meant something like "bewildered" or "perplexed," but they've each veered off in different semantic directions — one towards resolute calmness (nonplussed) and the other towards mild amusement (bemused). How common do these new meanings need to become before they can be accepted as standard and conventional, appropriate for good writing and speaking? In the eyes of the Merriam-Webster lexicographers, the new sense of bemused has already reached that point, but the new sense of nonplussed is not quite there.

Even if these newer senses become enshrined in the major dictionaries, that won't be much solace to those with a more traditionalist take on language, who would see the semantic drift as mere error. We're left with words that are difficult to use in either the old or the new way: if you use the traditional meaning, you might confuse those who are unfamiliar with with it, and if you use the newer meaning, you might annoy those who feel that the meaning is wrong. Bryan Garner, in his book Garner's Modern American Usage, refers to such words as "skunked terms":

When a word undergoes a marked change from one use to another — a phase that might take ten years or a hundred — it's likely to be the subject of dispute. Some people (Group 1) insist on the traditional use; others (Group 2) embrace the new use. ... A word is most hotly disputed in the middle part of this process: any use of it is likely to distract some readers. The new use seems illiterate to Group 1; the old use seems odd to Group 2. The word has become "skunked."

"Skunked terms" on Garner's list include data, decimate, effete, enormity, fulsome, and that old usage bugaboo, hopefully. Each of these items has undergone a transformation similar to nonplussed and bemused. Garner's advice for dealing with skunked terms is one of avoidance: "To the writer or speaker for whom credibility is important, it's a good idea to avoid distracting any readers or listeners — whether they're in Group 1 or Group 2."

What do Group 1-ers and Group 2-ers think? Are these troublesome words best left unused until their meanings become more settled? Should we preserve the old, embrace the new, or attempt to do both? Sound off in the comments below!

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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