[Note: An updated and expanded version of this post was published on Aug. 5, 2015.]
Q: The word “nonplussed” used to mean baffled or confused. But now it seems to mean calm and collected. This is driving me crazy! Which is correct?
A: Despite widespread misuse in recent years, “nonplussed” doesn’t mean calm and collected; it means just the opposite: bewildered, puzzled, lost in thought.
I suspect that many people mistake “nonplussed” for “nonchalant.” One way to remember the correct meaning is to think of its roots: “non” means no, and “plus” means more. When you’re nonplussed, you feel as if you can do no more. In other words, you feel helpless.
I added an entry on “nonplussed” to the second edition of my grammar book Woe Is I. Unfortunately, it’s a word that’s almost NEVER used correctly now, which probably bodes ill for its survival.
Most dictionaries still list only the traditional definition, but Encarta now includes “cool and collected” as an informal, secondary meaning. Yikes!
It’s a wonderful word, and I’m sorry to see it abused. When the meaning of a word like “nonplussed” gets stretched beyond usefulness, English loses some of its nuance, its elasticity, and its specificity. Too bad!