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Monday, September 14, 2015

Nonplussed about nonplussed

Friends of mine recently had a facebook discussion about the meaning of "nonplussed" (also spelled "nonplused" by Americans). One thought it meant "confused" and the other "unperturbed".  There is indeed cause for confusion, because this word is used with both these sometimes contradictory meanings. 

Although "so surprised and confused that one is unsure how to react" is the original meaning of "nonplussed", the second, "unfazed", meaning arose in North America in the 1960s. It has become so pervasive that, in Canada at least, according to the surveys we did for the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, it has become the dominant meaning of the word. Indeed, many Canadians we asked were not even aware that there WAS a "confused" meaning of "nonplussed". When matters reach this point, it is clear that the word has changed its meaning, and no admonitions that "this is not standard" (as found in many dictionaries) can stop it.

However, because of these very divergent senses, I would recommend that you avoid using this word in writing unless the context makes the meaning absolutely unambiguous.

It's an odd word, isn't it?  It comes from classical Latin nōn plūs (not more, no further). In the 1500s, when English speakers just adored making English more Latinate, we made this Latin phrase into an English noun, "non plus" (a state in which no more can be said or done; an inability to proceed in speech or action; a state of perplexity or puzzlement; a standstill). You could be at or in a nonplus, or reduced to a nonplus. As is usual with English, it didn't take long for this noun to be turned into a verb, so that by the 1600s, people who were paralyzed by perplexity were "nonplussed". 

What does "nonplussed" mean to you?



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4 comments:

  1. Canadian here, and definitely only have ever used nonplussed to mean flabbergasted/speechless/confused

    ReplyDelete
  2. Swiss educated in US and Canada: Unconfused

    ReplyDelete
  3. American. I always thought it meant 'rendered speechless', which I suppose is close to 'unable to react'

    ReplyDelete
  4. American, Northeast - unfazed, totally.

    ReplyDelete

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.