Tuesday, January 14, 2014

You keep using that word.

In 2013 more than I recall in previous years, I came across the word "nonplussed" in articles and books.

What do you think that word means? Here are your choices:

1. so surprised and confused that one is unsure how to react

2. not surprised or confused

The standard ("correct") definition is #1, and I knew that, but in 2013 I started to think maybe I was wrong because I kept seeing it used in accordance with definition #2.

So I double-checked the definition and saw that #2 is now listed as "nonstandard, informal North American English."

Still, I was really bothered, not because people were using it "incorrectly" - descriptivism compels me to admit that when people start using a word in a certain way, even if that way is prescriptively incorrect, it becomes correct - but because there was no need for this awful word! Every time I saw it, it confused me. You might say, heh heh, that I was nonplussed by the word nonplussed. Why do we need this word? Why are we using it in our published, edited books and articles? Now that it means both its actual definition, as well as that definition's exact opposite, it has become useless. When I see it in your book, or your article, I no longer know what meaning you are trying to convey.

Do you mean the person was shocked? Or do you mean they maintained a completely deadpan mien in the face of some horrible news? It's anybody's guess at this point.

And heck yeah, I went to the corpus (COCA) to provide you with some examples. Here's an example from Good Housekeeping, where it's used incorrectly nonstandard-ly:

"When I showed them Michael Jackson's Thriller video, my jaded children were nonplussed."

Allow your brain to recover from the annoying double-take it had to do when it came across "nonplussed." Then realize that in this context, the writer means that they were completely unimpressed. The corpus is full of examples like these.

But more troubling are examples like these, where I have no idea what the word is supposed to mean:

"Most would consider The Beatles as relevant today as ever, but there were more than a few contestants who seem nonplussed by the choice."

"Amir paused. He looked quite nonplussed, which, despite the exacerbating circumstances, pleased me inordinately."

"The woman appeared nonplussed by Aliss's outburst."

Were these people shocked, or unimpressed? We will never know.

Nonplussed. I do not think it means what you think it means.


Frank Pellett said...

From an online entymology dictionary:

nonplussed (adj.) c.1600, past participle adjective from nonplus.

nonplus (v.) "to bring to a nonplus, to perplex," 1590s, from the noun (1580s), properly "state where 'nothing more' can be done or said," from Latin non plus "no more, no further" (see plus).

elliespen said...

I was not aware that definition 2 was now a thing. This makes me very uncomfortable.

Abu Halen said...

I am raging inside.

munira islam said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Blair Walker said...

Uh, what?

Kathy Haynie said...

And your choice of photo illustration charms me because it seems to work for either definition.
Speaking of changing language, the other day I was typing something in a huge hurry and I included "because ___" - per your recent post. Thank you for keeping my language up-to-date!

Bridget said...

SPAM. I got rid of it.

Liz Johnson said...

I admit using this incorrectly. I have received my three lashes and will discontinue said use. I will not be part of the problem!

Katie said...

Thank you. I hate it when people use words that leave you with no idea what they're talking about. I just watched a movie (Jack Reacher) and there were probably 10 instances that just left me asking what they meant to say. For example "I promised him I would bury him" does that mean "take him down-convict him of his crimes" or "when he's dead, I will kindly plan a funeral for him and bury him in his hometown cemetery"?

Bridget said...

Just doing my civic duty!

Jenn Ridgeway said...

At breakfast my 4 yr old told me she was so surprised she didn't know what to say, so I told her, "Hey, there's a word for that...you're nonplussed." She was so excited to have a word for that..."I'm nonplussed!" she shouted. I've passed the correct usage on to the next generation. You're welcome. (Now I wonder what her preschool teacher will say if she uses it at school today.)

Christi and Clifton said...

When I read your post, I could not recall ever even seeing that word before. Then last night I was finishing The Book Thief and it was there and I couldn't tell what meaning they were trying to use! It made me laugh. Now I will see the word everywhere. Thanks for the post!

Bridget said...

I know, right??

Bridget said...

Jenn and Christi, those are awesome examples! I promise you will see that word everywhere now. And be annoyed by it. :)


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