Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Nonplussed by Nonplus

Many, many decades have passed, virtually my entire English-speaking life, and in that time I managed to resist looking up the word nonplussed when I came across it. Yes. And this despite the fact that context almost never revealed the meaning of the word to me. Yes again. Tried to guess it. The roots are not only visible but also immediately graspable by anyone with even just a sliver of Latin. Non is no, not; plus is more. So we get something like this: “She was nonplussed by the scene that now unfolded.” I substitute: “She was no-mored by the scene that now unfolded.” Does the meaning now emerge? Not for me. Does it mean that she was shocked enough to decide never again to visit this place? Does it mean that she’d seen enough and wished to see no more? In the past I’ve invariably turned my mental attention sharply aside, telling myself “bad English, worse Latin”—yes, even when Agatha Christie did it, as she occasionally did. And I like Christie a lot!

Well, today in a blog comment—there was the word again. But today the context was such I really did wish to understand what the commenter meant by that. So I broke down and looked it up.

Google sometimes produces a dictionary definition as the first response to a search, and it produced the following:

Well, here is a pretty kettle of fish. The two definitions of this word are contradictory—and neither has much or indeed anything to do with “no more.” Additional digging into this contradiction produced the following quote from the Oxford Dictionary people (link). They rank high in Word Land even if they are British and hence, well, a little down-the-nose when talking about our uses of the language:
In standard use nonplussed means ‘surprised and confused’, as in she was nonplussed at his eagerness to help out. In North American English a new use has developed in recent years, meaning ‘unperturbed’ — more or less the opposite of its traditional meaning — as in he was clearly trying to appear nonplussed. This new use probably arose on the assumption that non- was the normal negative prefix and must therefore have a negative meaning. It is not considered part of standard English.
Not part of “standard English”! Looks like we’ve done it again. The comment I read came from a relatively young American. So I still don’t really know what the comment meant. But, it seems to me, my old policy was a good one and needs only a small adjustment. When Agatha Christie uses the word, I can read the meaning as baffled. But when it comes from a young American, I must discretely look the other way.


  1. I obliviously used the word in the more modern usage for years and was poleaxed when I learned its original/more correct meaning.

    I can't find a written source for this so grain of salt and all that, but I was told the "not more" refers to "doesn't add up," or "doesn't sum." I sniff some postmodern thinking there but it might be true. It does seem to be one way to make sense of the roots.


  2. My usual source is Online Etymology Dictionary, Rob. There I find the following for nonplus:

    1580s (n.), properly “state where ‘nothing more’ can be done or said,” from L. non plus “no more, no further.” The verb meaning “to bring to a nonplus, to perplex” is attested from 1590s. Related: Nonplussed.

    I think your interpretation makes a lot of sense. The psychology here is of a person listening to arguments, one piled on top of the other, and still not getting it. And he cries out, "No more. I give up. I'm never going to get it." So a certain facial and other gesture will accompany that anguished Non plus!

    And I say he above, rather than he or she, because women don't sit still for long and boring arguments but go off to do something useful...

  3. Women are also not too often surprised or confused by events or arguments. More likely they are quick to assess the cause or value of an argument or some surprising situation, size up each sides' merit, and having decided "go off to do something useful". Well said, Arsen.


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