Q: I’m troubled by the word “nonplussed.” It still means perplexed here in Australia (as it does in England). But in the USA, it’s evolved to have two incompatible meanings. Does this ambiguity render it less usable?
A: The participial adjective “nonplussed” has meant perplexed or disconcerted since it showed up in written English in the early 1600s, but a lot of people—and not just Americans—now think it means the opposite: unfazed or indifferent.
We’ve checked six standard dictionaries—three American, three British—and none of them consider the new usage standard English.
In fact, only two of them (Oxford Dictionaries online and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed.) take note of the recent usage, which began showing up in print half a century ago.
Oxford labels this unperturbed sense as “North American informal,” and adds in a usage note, “It is not considered part of standard English.”
American Heritage lists the indifferent sense as a “usage problem,” and notes, “This usage is still controversial and should probably be avoided, since it may well be viewed as a mistake.” In a 2013 survey, a majority of AH’s usage panel rejected this sense.
“Nonplus” began life in the late 1500s as a noun meaning a state of perplexity in which no more can be said or done. In classical Latin, non plus means no more.
The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a 1582 treatise by the English Jesuit priest Robert Parsons: “Beynge now brought to a non plus in argueing.”
An adjectival version of “nonplus” (probably short for “at a nonplus,” according to the OED) showed up in 1589 in Albion’s England, a historical poem by William Warner: “Soone his wits were Non plus, for his wooing could but spell.”
When the term is used adjectivally today, however, it’s usually in the form of the participial adjective “nonplussed.”
The verb “nonplus,” meaning to perplex or confound, first showed up (as a past participle) in Joshua Sylvester’s 1605 translation of the poetry of Guillaume de Salluste Du Bartas, according to OED citations.
We’ll skip ahead, however, to a clearer example from The Historie of the Holy Warre (1639), by Thomas Fuller: “I know it will non-plus his power to work a true miracle.”
The first appearance of the participial adjective “nonplussed” in OED citations is from A Continuance of Albion’s England, a 1606 addition to Warner’s lengthy historical poem: “As lastly did the non-plust Nunne vnto her Charmes agree.”
The OED describes the recent use of “nonplussed” to mean unperturbed rather than perturbed as “orig. and chiefly U.S.” It suggests that the usage probably arose because of confusion with other “non-” words.
The earliest example of the usage in the dictionary is from the Aug. 2, 1960, issue of the Oakland (Calif.) Tribune: “The Rev. Dr. Braddeley remained nonplussed. ‘I don’t intend to make a habit of going to the races.’ ”
And here’s an example, from Flying (1974), by Kate Millett: “He is nonplussed. Has probably been in this bind a hundred times.”
Although the OED and Oxford Dictionaries online consider the recent usage American (or chiefly American), we’ve found many examples in the British news media.
The website of The Independent, for example, used the term in a recent story about an explosion during the destruction of 10 tons of confiscated beer in Kenya.
As politicians hurry from the scene, the report says, the sign-language interpreter “appears nonplussed by the explosion and barely reacts.”
We’ve even found some examples from Down Under, including a recent report on Nine News Australia about a Canadian pilot who took his four-year-old daughter on a flight of aerial gymnastics.
“Nonplussed at first as she sits strapped in behind her dad, the young girl begins squealing and laughing uncontrollably when her dad guides the aircraft through the sky in thick, undulating loops.”
Why are so many English speakers using “nonplussed” to mean the opposite of the traditional sense?
The linguist Mark Liberman suggested in an Aug. 6, 2008, post on the Language Log that the recent usage may have been influenced by words with meanings similar to those of the traditional and newer senses.
“The other words that mean something similar to the traditional sense of nonplussed—perplexed, confounded, confused, addled, befuddled, bewildered, muddled, etc.—are generally un-negated, while there are quite a few words with a sense similar to the new meaning of nonplussed that include a negative element: impassive, unperturbed, nonchalant, unfazed.”
Getting back to your question, is the recent usage making “nonplussed” unusable? Not yet. As we’ve said, we couldn’t find a single standard dictionary that accepts the new sense of “nonplussed” as standard English.
But stay tuned. English is a living language. And words have a way of surprising us.
(Note: This expands and updates a Feb. 2, 2007, post on the Grammarphobia Blog.)