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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Comments from our users:

Tuesday November 18th 2008, 3:14 AM
Comment by: Clarence W.
I am bemused to learn that I am a default "Group 2-er" where the words bemused and nonplussed are concerned, as I was unaware of the "Group 1-er" definitions. However, I am nonplussed by the controversy, as the concept of reading between the lines should be sufficient to resolve any misunderstandings.
Tuesday November 18th 2008, 7:52 AM
Comment by: Chris B.
Clarence's post helped me solidify my position in Group 3. I intend to forego these skunked words. Clarity is my friend. Reasonable substitutes abound.
Tuesday November 18th 2008, 8:51 AM
Comment by: Joyce S.
I'm in group 1, but I join group 3 when I'm nonplussed by the spelling of a difficult word. That's not happening as often now that I have the Visual Thesaurus!
A word of caution, group 1 should be careful about correcting group 2 as they don't always appreciate it.
Tuesday November 18th 2008, 9:26 AM
Comment by: Jon D. (King of Prussia, PA)
re: "Garner's advice for dealing with skunked terms is one of avoidance."

I'm not sure if this is the intent or not, but I would argue that Garner's advice (and those who follow it, knowingly or not) are actually aiding in the evolution toward the new meaning of skunked terms.

For those who know enough to avoid the term will leave the definitional door open for those who know of no skunkitude. And, chances are, the less informed will be more likely to use the contemporary definitions, thereby accelerating the evolution.

As a result, the respective behaviors of Group 1 and Group 2 are predictive that Group 1 is actually going to allow Group 2 to prevail.

As a Group 2'er for "nonplussed" and a Group 1'er for "bemused," I still ask the literati if there is a tipping point that can be pointed to for any given term when we give up the ghost on the traditional definition. I'm looking for a rule of thumb.
Tuesday November 18th 2008, 9:36 AM
Comment by: JOnathan P. (Wilm, DE)
FUnny but in the case of nonplussed it seems to be it's own antonym. The only other wors that I've ever heard to have two opposite meanings is moot, coming from the original meaning of the moot court in ancient law schools - meaning arguable (the original moot courts were arguments over fake suits) and having no reason to argue (also from the same). INtersting that nonplussed now can mean exactly the opposite if used in two different situations.
Tuesday November 18th 2008, 9:44 AM
Comment by: JOnathan P. (Wilm, DE)
FUnny but in the case of nonplussed it seems to be it's own antonym. The only other wors that I've ever heard to have two opposite meanings is moot, coming from the original meaning of the moot court in ancient law schools - meaning arguable (the original moot courts were arguments over fake suits) and having no reason to argue (also from the same). INtersting that nonplussed now can mean exactly the opposite if used in two different situations.
Tuesday November 18th 2008, 10:00 AM
Comment by: Wood F.
I think of myself as a group 2-er (descriptivist), but after reading this article I realize that that applies more to grammar than to semantics. I'm all for getting rid of 'whom,' using 'their' as a gender-neutral singular possessive, etc.... but 'nonplussed' meaning 'unfazed'? Sacrilege.

But at bottom, there's really no difference between these two forms of shift, is there? If the language is changing, no amount of complaining is going to stop it. After all, 'nice' used to mean 'foolish,' didn't it?

It's sad, though, when the delicate shadings of connotation that are so richly available in English get smeared together by the heedless swipe of common usage.
Tuesday November 18th 2008, 10:29 AM
Comment by: Emily O. (Oakland, CA)
I think people who love language and don't want to see it "skunked" should continue to "out" those who misuse the word. OK, I'm a Group 1'er but I'm sure I've fallen into the Group 2'er camp on occasion, but that's because there were no Group 1'ers to correct me. We need more of you!

Of course, the correction should be done in a gentle, nonjudgmental, and erudite way (in the spirit of love for language)....I would point out the source of the error in a courteous way--my take on "nonplussed" is that it has been crossed with nonchalant. If the guilty one were to realize that, one (they) might see the error of one's (their) ways.

By the way, I think Obama was not only faintly amused but also bemused by McCain's "many conflicting statements." The real question is, what kind of self-control would he have have been able to exercise if Palin had been his opponent in the debate?
Tuesday November 18th 2008, 10:51 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I’m a group-1er at heart who has to suppress an urge to throttle people who say “impact” when all they mean is “affect” – but I think it’s hard to apply a blanket policy to such words. Shifts will inevitably occur, whether one promotes or rails against them. For any particular term, I think it’s useful to consider:
(1) are there good etymological or lexical reasons for the shift? (as in enormity)
(2) does the word fill a niche for which English has no comparable term to do the job economically? (as hopefully does)
I note a tendency in myself (you could call this tendency “elitist”) to disparage usages which seem to result mainly from inferior education, unclear thinking, or mere pretension on the part of the writer or speaker – but in this age of unedited English, we are constantly exposed to examples of all three, which suggests to me that such shifts, whether worthy or not, will become more frequent and less stoppable. Wood’s “heedless swipe of common usage” is becoming a tsunami.
Tuesday November 18th 2008, 11:13 AM
Comment by: Saffron S. (Winnipeg Canada)
I have to agree with Orin as I tend towards being a stickler for proper usage and therefore fall under Group 1. If you let the uneducated massed dictate proper use of the language eventually you end up with a society that says "LOL" instead of laugh, break up their sentences with shizzle-isms, and drop their blasted Hs.

Unfortunately I seem to be a dying breed though as most folks my age (mid-twenties) tend toward Group 2. I honestly shudder to think what sort of linguistic travesties my children will learn in the public school system in the years to come. It's the #1 reason why I'm pushing for home-schooling.
Tuesday November 18th 2008, 12:45 PM
Comment by: Phil K. (West Vancouver Canada)
I very nearly found myself both bemused and nonplussed by Clarence's declaration that he was completely "unaware of the "group 1-er definitions" of those words. That state soon passed, as evidenced by the length of this post.

Each of my many dictionaries, including my VT subscription, treats both "bemused" and "nonplussed", and covers the so called "group 1er" meaning as the prevalent significance of the word. Yet here is evidence that there are serious readers (I suspect Clarence is representative of a large class of readers and listeners) who, despite being equipped with the necessary tools for comprehension, are completely unaware of what writers might have intended by the use of those words. And apparently, are quite content to "read between the lines", or in other words - guess.

And having guessed at the intended significance of a word, they then assume themselves to be correct, and presume the right to insist on their guess as being a valid, and therefore an alternative, meaning for the word. Wow! Lewis Carroll famously had his character claim that "words mean what I say they mean" but he did so in the context of the person using the word, imposing his meaning on the listener. Now, we go way beyond that, to insist that words mean what the "listener/reader" guesses that they mean.

No less an authority than Bryan Garner suggests that writers and speakers who care about clarity should avoid a word altogether if it has been "skunked" as a result of the "readers' guesses" process of evolution. Jon D is correct that following this advice would effectively yield the contest to the insurgent meaning in every case. But that would matter only if one cares about the outcome of a specific contest over the meaning of a particular word. There is a deeper reason for concern.

If we accept that words do indeed mean whatever the reader/listener guesses they mean, and that all guesses are equally valid, and have equal alternative status, then nothing is authoritative and we can just burn our dictionaries, erase our on-line language tools, and re-employ several thousand language experts in (doubtlessly) more lucrative pursuits. Because, if a reader is entitled to "guess and impose" meaning on the writer's words, then no word is clear, no meaning is certain, and (following Garner's advice to the absurd degree) all words must eventually be avoided. And so communication dies.

Certainly, the dictionary is descriptive, not prescriptive; the context in which a word is used influences the meaning to be ascribed to the word; meaning is something re-created in the mind of each reader or listener - not imposed or transmitted by rigid encoding by the writer or speaker. These truths govern the writer or speaker who wishes to be understood.

But it takes two to tango, and effective communication requires a second person willing to participate with the writer or speaker subject to the same truths. The writer has to be able to assume a literate reader - that is, one who is both able to de-code word symbols, and who is equipped and inclined to consult authoritative resources when in doubt. Without which, we don't so much dance to the music of our language, as engage in detached gyrations in the midst of a hypnotic cacophony.
Tuesday November 18th 2008, 1:16 PM
Comment by: Cori R.
If something is used incorrectly often enough, it becomes correct????
It seems to me that the definitions are pretty close to opposite "bewildered" v. "unfazed".

Wrong is wrong.
Tuesday November 18th 2008, 2:17 PM
Comment by: Rain
I enjoyed your comments, Phil K. from West Vancouver, Canada. Your fifth paragraph, ending with, "And so communication dies," explained and clarified the entire issue for me.

Group 1 rules!

Lorraine G. from Grand Forks, B.C., Canada.
Tuesday November 18th 2008, 2:41 PM
Comment by: Clarence W.
I became a member of VT a couple years ago, hoping to become a better wordsmith. Ironically, my motivations had to do with concern for the loss of both grammar and proper usage, both my own and society's. My original comment was my first foray into the community discussion.

I must confess I have never used either of the words in controversy prior to my comments. I had not read the original article critical of Group 2 usage of the two terms in discussion. I read it after I sent my comments. Immediately upon reading the etymological explanation of nonplussed I giggled at the prospect of Group 1-ers losing their minds. As expected, the "wrong" usage has been railed against, while simultaneously indicating clear understanding of the usage I intended.

More irony is that I would rather use the Group 1 meaning of nonplussed having now learned the etymology. So how did I come to understand the Group 2 usage? Sans etymology, I must confess to allowing the sound of the word (perhaps relying too heavily on the "non") coupled with it's Group 2 usage to lure me.

Take for instance the Obama usage of nonplussed. My "guessing" of his meaning was based in large part on the observations of his family throughout the campaign. It was rather obvious that his daughters were not perplexed or bewildered. Though I have to admit that I would have been Group 1 nonplussed if I knew only the Group 1 meaning upon hearing his usage.

So, would I rail against Group 2 usage in the future? Probably not. I understand that language and society evolves. If someone is confused by my meaning, I am blessed with the opportunity to engage in further conversation. And, if I am confused by someone's usage, I'll ask politely for clarification.
Tuesday November 18th 2008, 3:01 PM
Comment by: CaspianRex (Nashville, TN)
I happen to think that this is a really interesting debate, and not one that can easily be "won." I am reminded of Shakespeare's Hamlet, wherein the Dane says "I doubt some foul play." Many of my annotated editions of Hamlet inform me that "doubt" in Shakespeare's time meant "suspect." That is quite different from its meaning today! Language does indeed change all the time, and it is impossible to know whether the traditionalist or the progressive element is more influential. So many debates of days gone by seem so quaint in retrospect, but they probably seemed quite urgent at the time.
Tuesday November 18th 2008, 6:18 PM
Comment by: Sue B.
Language evolves; otherwise, it's dead.

That said, I think it's important to resist evolution arising out of ignorance, misinformation, or poor education. I suppose I fall more into Group 1, and feel little sympathy for the non-appreciation of those in Group 2. Is it more important to be perceived as never wrong than to learn something new and correct?
Tuesday November 18th 2008, 11:32 PM
Comment by: Dors (Canberra Australia)
What???!!!!! I have never heard the word 'nonplussed' being used as 'unfazed' in Australia. Will it become yet another Americanism for our bemusement?
Wednesday November 19th 2008, 2:50 AM
Comment by: Tony R.
I have a theory about this phenomenon. Over the last 15 years E-mail has become the major means of communication and negotation in the office environment. This means many thousands of clever people have now invested billions of hours into precisely manipulating text in order to get their own way and defend themselves. So when we write that we are "nonplussed" or "bemused", in the original sense, in response to a dear colleague's negotiation tactic this rather nicely obstructs them. With time, and many office email exchanges between politically-minded people, "nonplussed" becomes directly understood by the receiver as "sender doesn't care, it leaves them indifferent/unfazed" and "bemused" becomes directly understood as "sender doesn't care about your possibly ridulous opinion". For my part I am both nonplussed and bemused at any suggestion of an official change to these meanings.
Wednesday November 19th 2008, 1:03 PM
Comment by: Andrea R.
I imagine that the layman is often as guilty as I, of having used a word incorrectly; or are they truly incorrect?

(Perhaps) All of us would agree that if we are subscribed to this, my personal favorite of websites, we are interested in language. That being said; we are not illiterate, uneducated nor stupid when we don't run to the dictionary to police each word that spills from our mouth or mind checking that it is exactly the way the dictionary has defined it.

A great question is, why do so many people (and I believe Obama is included) use the word 'nonplussed' when they are describing a sense of being unfazed by something? If a word is used by half the population with one intent, is it incorrect, and should they be slapped because the other half of the population has been following the definition that comes from a book, or bible or whatever system one has of verifying a word's meaning?

Is it not fascinating when listening to a person whose grammar is less than perfect, to observe what their meaning is and how they conveyed it? Like a dialect, like Ebonics, like Americans and all the other pirates of the English language, we use language to convey our life's experience.

I began to comment here yesterday, defending myself as a 2. Yes a TWO!
I referred to my peers definition of the (French derived) word 'nonplussed'...and then realized..."Hmmm...do my peers define nonplussed the same way I do?"
I erased my comments and sent out a poll instead. Mind you, this is a collective of individuals ranging from 30 to 88. They are artists, a flood repair man, a handful of vintners, a retired electrical engineer, a photographer, an event organizer, an accountant, a retired police officer, a watchmaker and Dad, a spiritual guide, a masterful webmaster, a screenplay writer and graphics man, a day-trader, and a dog groomer. Here are the results (Note the way they punctuated and commented):
1. not perplexed!
2. not phased by something...indifferent..am I close?
3. Bewildered....confused.....
4. Ummmm, not added to.
5. speechless. At a complete loss as to what to do or what to think. I am rarely nonplussed...:-)
6. Nonplussed means that you just couldn't be happier. "I am nonplussed that your business is going so well". Now can I look it up??
I'm totally wrong about that one!! Hmmmm!
7. I think it means peaved or put off.
8. Here's our answer: Nonplussed = too stupid to add.
9. Off the top of my head...non excited, not even slightly impressed.
10. I would say....average, status quo, unexceptional, but okay.
11. Not bothered by something annoying in the face of being confronted by it.
12. It is an expression that was more popular 10 years ago than now a days that means unimpressed or not appreciated.
13. I think of a word that I would pronounce, non pulsed, which I think of as meaning "not affecting greatly" or not getting upset.
14. Unaffected.
15. Not impressed.
16. being that it's a 'non', it makes it interesting...non-agitated,non-perturbed, non-reactive, non-twitchy, non-negatively affected, actually the first word that came to mind was unflappable.
17. Kind of a surprised bewilderment. Something that comes up abruptly.
18. Unfazed

Isn't it interesting how the bulk of these definitions are #2?
Though some obviously don't use the word, others have been using it
with two-esque abandon.

At what point IS a word's common usage weighed and reconsidered by the #1s?

Granted, in the case of 'nonplussed', the #1 and #2 definitions are rather contrary...which may cause me to consider prefacing as I'm using it. Hmmm...could get a little wordy. If only it didn't feel so good rolling off the tongue...Ploooost!

Y'all 'l havta make yur minds up!
Thursday November 20th 2008, 9:48 PM
Comment by: Phil K. (West Vancouver Canada)
Imagine, that instead of being either a 1-er, or a 2e, or even Garner's 3-er, I was a Zero-er: A person who had no previous experience with, or idea of the possible meaning of, Obama's word "nonplussed" as used to describe something about his daughters.

How might a 'zero-er' comprehend the statement?

Well, he could infer some meaning from the context - read between the lines, as Clarence called it at the top of this thread. But what might that produce in the way of meaning. Accepting that the context indicated that the subject was the emotions of the girls during the campaign, which of all possible emotions would our "zero-er" choose to insert in place of the unfamiliar "nonplussed"? And why would they choose one (let's say "dejected") over another, let's say "ecstatic"? In this particular example, the context helps a little more, because he expressed pleasure in their emotion, and it is reasonable to assume that a caring father takes pleasure in his children's positive emotions, and feels concern for when they experience negative ones.

But that's about as far as "reading between the lines" can take the 'zero-er". At that point, if he guesses from the long menu of possible positive emotions, the odds are against getting it right, and communication will have failed.

Or, the "zero-er" could consult a reference source, asking in effect "what might Mr. Obama have meant by his use of that word". And a dictionary will reveal how most people in the culture, at the time, use and understand the unfamiliar word.

Of course, since Mr. Obama used the word in a manner that most reference works do no acknowledge, our zero-er would indeed come away confused - not about the meaning of the word, but about why the statement seemed to be self-contradictory.

As Obama himself might say, it is when we step away from our entrenched positions as 1-ers or 2-ers, and examine the question from the perspective of a person who comes to the inquiry without pre-conceptions, we can see fairly clearly why writers ought indeed to keep their usage within the bounds of the described usage of their culture, as reported by authoritative works, and why readers ought to consult such works when they are in doubt as to meaning.
Saturday November 22nd 2008, 3:02 PM
Comment by: Andrea R.
That was a well written and well received argument Phil.

My point is that if a reader (from group 0 or any group) referred to an "authoritative work" which does not include the common usage, i.e., the definition the man on the street is using, they continue to remain in the blue.

There are so many words in our language with multiple meanings, why balk at adding a definition which has come into practice? Is not the idea of an authoritative book to enlighten us to what is understood and practiced by a large group of others?

Then comes the question of the democratic dictionary...which I don't necessarily completely agree with either...although I might feel more informed if I had one. Thank god for the internet!
Tuesday November 25th 2008, 10:50 AM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
(For Jonathan P, I think it was: CLEAVE is another word that is its own antonym.)

I don't think it's fair to lay down conditions on the evolution of words. Thankfully, language has an inbuilt love of democracy; it resists dictatorship of any form - much to the chagrin of, for example, French intellectuals who even *legislate* to keep their language pure, to no avail.

To say that ignorant or uneducated people, for example, will not be allowed to contribute to a language's evolution goes against the simple fact that a language is not the possession of any particular section of society, but is freely available to all.

Conqueror v conquered, immigrant v native, educated v pleb, it is upon the anvil of opposites such as these that a common vocabulary and common linguistic usage are forged.

To ask at what point a word has 'cooled' sufficiently (to continue the smithy image) to become standard usage is like asking in which year precisely did 'ancient' became 'modern'.
Friday November 28th 2008, 3:01 PM
Comment by: Dorothy G. (Canada)
I have a response to Geoff A.
It may not be fair to lay down conditions on the evolution of words, but most of us have had Grade 5 teachers. No language can resist such a dictatorship.
Language may be available to all, but by the same token, by their (language) usage shall you know them.
It may not be politically correct, but it's so.
Friday January 16th 2009, 7:45 PM
Comment by: James M.
Please note the incorrect use of "it's" in at least a couple of the above comments. (And I do still accept "incorrect" as a meaningful term in evaluations.)
Monday June 8th 2009, 5:48 PM
Comment by: Clarence W.
Penn supports use of Group 1'er bemused.

Monday October 18th 2010, 2:12 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I think I'm in group 1, which is where I'd expect to find myself. To me, Obama's 'nonplussed' was missing a part, and therefore, almost without context.

When words change meanings, sometimes to their opposites, it can be dangerous.

Take the word 'inflammable'. I think we get that from the French, 'enflamere' with accents as needed. And it meant that something could burn or be burned.

Enter 'flammable'. After all, those nasty 'in' prefixes are annoying and doesn't 'in' mean 'not'? Sigh!

So logically now, if you put that 'in' there, you mean 'cannot burn or be burned'.

And this can have dire consequenses. I wonder what insurance companies do with the word!

I sat on a patio in Nova Scotia, looking out over the ocean -- until I noticed a group of men taking a break, sitting on huge crates labelled, 'enflammable' and 'flammable'. You see, we are bilingual.

I didn't stay in the vacinity. I was betting that the workers were careless in the two official languages!

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