Nonplussed about nonplussed

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Earlier today, a journalist wrote to ask me about "the way 'nonplussed' gets mistaken for 'unfazed'" . In accordance with my recent policy of turning public service into blog fodder, my answers to her questions are posted below the jump.


Q: What is the origin of "nonplussed"?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it comes from nonplus, meaning (as a noun) "A state in which no more can be said or done; inability to proceed in speech or action; a state of perplexity or puzzlement; a standstill". Originally this is just the use in English of the Latin words "non plus", meaning "no more", and used in roughly the sense of Roberto Duran's famous (if apparently apocryphal) "no mas". The earliest recorded use in English is

1582 R. PARSONS Def. Censure Epist. to Charke 8 Beynge now brought to a non plus in argueing.

It was also used as an adjective, with roughly the same meaning as modern nonplussed:

1589 W. WARNER Albions Eng. VI. xxx. 132 Soone his wits were Non plus, for his wooing could but spell.

The form nonplussed as an adjective, perhaps derived from the occasionally-used verb "to nonplus", and meaning "Brought to a nonplus or standstill; at a nonplus; perplexed, confounded", began to be used a few years later:

1606 W. WARNER Albions Eng. XIV. lxxxix. 363 So many Incantations, lyes, feares, hopes instanced shee,..As lastly did the non-plust Nunne vnto her Charmes agree.


Q: Is there something about "nonplussed" — other than the way it sounds — that makes it vulnerable to this kind of misuse and misunderstanding?

The other words that mean something similar to the traditional sense of nonplussedperplexed, 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: impasssive, unperturbed, nonchalant, unfazed, If you hypothesized that there was a word plussed meaning something like perturbed or fazed, then …

And also, in many contexts of use, either meaning might have been intended. Among the seven examples in the OED, at least three are like this, e.g.:

1826 J. WILSON Noctes Ambrosianae in Wks. (1855) I. 140 [He] stares round the company with his vacant and nonplussed eyes.

So were his vacant eyes confused, or unfazed? It's hard to tell.


Q: I have the feeling this misuse is more common in the U.S. than in the U.K. or other English speaking countries. Do you know if that's true?

I don't know. I do know that the new meaning is roughly as common as the old one in current informal writing. Searching blogpulse.com for nonplussed yields 3,968 hits, and checking the first 20 of them, I found 7 of the old-fashioned "confused" kind, 10 of the new "unperturbed" kind, and 3 that I wasn't certain how to classify. Searching Google News yields 112 current examples, and checking the first 20 of them, I found 11 of the old kind, 7 of the new kind, and 2 that that seemed ambiguous.

And several of the "new nonplussed" examples were British, e.g. this from the Guardian:

The only trouble with the Sun's hot-and-bothered investigation was that, well, Burial had already been "unmasked". In February the Independent reported that Will Bevan was Burial and Burial was Will Bevan. The electronica community was relatively nonplussed. "So noted," they seemed to say. Hot Chip's Joe Goddard recalled Bevan being ahead of him at the Elliot Smith school in South London. And that, quietly, was that.


Q: Is it possible for a word to become so commonly misused that the new (wrong) definition becomes acceptable? Has any word like this ever had its new meaning included in a dictionary?

Yes, this happens all the time, though perhaps the loaded term "misuse" should be put aside for the moment.

Working forward from 1200 to 1600, a certain word went through something like the following sequence of meanings (as given in the OED): "Happy, blissful; fortunate, lucky, well-omened, auspicious"; "Spiritually blessed, enjoying the blessing of God"; "Pious, holy, good"; "Innocent, harmless"; "Deserving of pity or sympathy; pitiable, miserable, ‘poor’; helpless, defenceless"; "Insignificant, trifling; mean, poor; feeble"; "Frail, worn-out, crazy"; "Foolish, simple, silly".

The word? Silly.

William Grant White, author of Words and Their Uses (1870), argued against the use of dirt to mean "earth", on the grounds that "dirt means filth, and primarily filth of the most offensive kind". While dirt did originally mean "excrement", the OED has examples where it means "earth" or "soil" going back to 1698, so White was fighting a battle already long lost.

In the case of nonplussed, the new meaning has already made it into Encarta's entry:

1. confused: surprised, confused, and uncertain what to do or say

2. cool and collected: calm and unperturbed ( informal )

with a usage note:

The adjective nonplussed means "surprised, confused, and uncertain what to do or say." It is increasingly used in the almost opposite sense of "untroubled," especially in U.S. English (Nonplussed by the criticism, she continued to direct her films in the very same offbeat manner for which she was famed.). This new meaning is not yet accepted as standard, and it may cause ambiguity in sentences such as He seemed nonplussed by the news. It possibly derives from a misunderstanding of the non- element, perhaps also influenced by nonchalant which does mean "calm and unconcerned." But nonplussed goes back to Latin non plus "no more," and does not have a positive or affirmative form plussed.


Q: What, off the top of your head, are other frequently misused words?

It depends on what you mean by "misused words". There's an interesting class of mistakes that we've called eggcorns, where meaning and sound conspire to steer people wrong, like "Segway" for "segue", or "Hobbesian choice" for "Hobson's choice".

"Peruse" and "bemuse" come to mind. Again, does this have to do with the way they sound? And why do certain sounds get locked in our brains to signify certain meanings? "Bemuse" does sound like "amuse." But does "peruse" really sound like skim?

To a pretty good approximation, the sound of words is arbitrary. To the extent that words come in phonetic bunches, it's mostly because they share historically connected elements, like the con- in control, convince, contractual, conjecture, etc., though "phonetic symbolism" also sometimes plays a role.  More on this (than you probably want to read) is here.

Word-substitution mistakes (including the slips of the brain known as malapropisms) do often involve similarity of sound.


Q: What, in your opinion, is the most commonly misused word among English speaking Americans today?

I don't know, but I'd be willing to place a small bet that the most frequent errors (in the sense of violations of the general "correctness conditions" of English) are almost certainly is/are and was/were, in cases where the "agreement with nearest" phenomenon leads people to use one where, on reflection, they should have used the other.


The background to all of this was the journalist's interest in a quote attributed to Barack Obama, in which he used nonplussed in the "unfazed" sense –

Sarah Parker, "Obama: Daughters won't be completely heartbroken if he loses", 7/23/2008

But despite the glare of the media spotlight over the course of the campaign season, "I've been really happy by how nonplussed they've been by the whole thing," says Obama.

Ironically, at the cited CNN site, "Anonymous" commented:

Wow, our possible president using the a word like "nonplussed." What a welcome change from Dubya and McCain.

And "Geoff " responded:

See, Barack Obama is not a snob. Like most people who would ever use the word "nonplussed" (which admittedly isn't that many) he uses it incorrectly. Obama apparently thinks it is a synonym for unfazed, when in reality it it's a synonym for bewilderment. My comment is of course absurdly pretentious, but Barack is just a regular Joe who gets word meanings mixed up. Take that Harvard!

Various bloggers have already registered their consternation: "Bewitched, bothered, and 'nonplussed'", 2/2/2007; "I'm completely nonplussed by the misuse of 'nonplussed'", 5/9/2008.

But me, I'm not plussed a bit.



53 Comments

  1. Chris said,

    August 6, 2008 @ 6:52 pm

    What meanings of "peruse" and "bemuse" does the journalist have in mind?
    OED has peruse: "trans. To use up; to wear out through use; to exhaust. Obs."
    but also the, to me, usual usage "To go through, examine."

    and bemuse doesn't seem to have any senses other than "puzzle"

  2. Lazar said,

    August 6, 2008 @ 7:10 pm

    I think the journalist would consider the "use up" definition of "peruse" to be correct, and your usage (and mine as well) to be a misuse. (In fact, though, dictionary.com gives only the "go through, examine" definition, relegating the older meaning to the etymology section.) With "bemuse(d)", I think she was referring to people using it to mean "amuse(d)".

  3. Justin L said,

    August 6, 2008 @ 7:13 pm

    A lot of times I've heard "bemused" in times when speakers mean "mildly amused" or "wryly smiling at the incongruities of the situation". I know I've used it that way before.

    On "peruse", I think people don't really know what it means. Maybe it's one of those things where people had to memorize it on a high school vocab list and remember it has something to do with reading, but not the specifics. When you're talking about what you do with a book, it sounds more erudite than "skim" or "browse" and sounds kind of similar to the latter word.

  4. Ann said,

    August 6, 2008 @ 7:58 pm

    I'm not sure that "silly" is really a good example of the process that might be happening with "nonplussed." In the former, each subsequent definition represents a slight shading of meaning, an expansion from meaning A to meaning B to meaning C, etc. But with "nonplussed," it seems as though people simply don't know what it means and are getting it wrong, probably from the negation you noted.
    I appreciate the Language Log attitude that words are symbols whose meanings change over time, but I suspect that if people started saying "noun" when they mean "verb," or committing some similar mistake in the area of linguistics, the word "misuse" might actually come into play.

  5. mgh said,

    August 6, 2008 @ 8:08 pm

    "inflammable" is a similar well-known example of a word with a misleading negative prefix that lends itself to being interpreted as its own opposite. but this usage may be mostly hypothetical, as the first few pages of google hits are actually usage advice

  6. Mark P said,

    August 6, 2008 @ 8:22 pm

    It seems to me that this changing of the meaning of a word is sometimes (often?) the result of people trying to figure out the meaning by context. Your uncertainty as to the intended meaning in some cases seems to provide some evidence for that.

  7. dr pepper said,

    August 6, 2008 @ 8:39 pm

    Don't forget the famous case of "let".

  8. Nathan Myers said,

    August 6, 2008 @ 9:00 pm

    Maybe "nice" and "happy" are good examples.

  9. Lee M said,

    August 6, 2008 @ 9:28 pm

    I don't think any of the examples given except for "nice" fit the bill of rapid and dramatic usage shift (i.e., a shift to a meaning far from its original in a short time) effected through misinterpretation. "Moot" would be another, although there are probably some who still consider the modern usage, "unimportant or irrelevant," to be incorrect.

  10. Bryn LaFollette said,

    August 6, 2008 @ 9:39 pm

    To Ann: I appreciate the Language Log attitude that words are symbols whose meanings change over time, but I suspect that if people started saying "noun" when they mean "verb," or committing some similar mistake in the area of linguistics, the word "misuse" might actually come into play.

    The "Language Log attitude" is the concensus position of the whole of the field of Linguistics, and possibly beyond. Further, you can clearly see this sort of process happening throughout the history of most any language. The difference between the current usage of "nonplussed" and using "noun" when you mean "verb" is that the former case's two meanings are just about evenly distributed in current popular usage, while the latter is not (at least not currently). So, while you're correct that a linguist is in fact going to call using "noun" when meaning "verb" misuse, this is really only because of the specificity of these terms' use is currently universal. There is no sizable subset of the population consistently using "noun" to mean "verb". But we also wouldn't rule out that this could change in time, as nouns often do change in what they specifically refer to. For example, no one that I know of corrects people using the term "dog" to refer to a female canine these days, and likewise in my local dialect of English, "guy" can be used to refer to any person, regardless of gender, though this is not universal to Standard English. There are almost certainly other, better examples of nominal semantic change, but that's all had off the top of my head.

  11. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    August 6, 2008 @ 10:43 pm

    To summarize Bryn's argument:

    If 10 person say it and it confuses other people, it's a mistake, possibly a frequent one, but a mistake nonetheless.
    If 20% of people routinely say it, and everybody else understand although they may disagree, it's an alternative, although possibly disputed usage.
    If nearly everybody does actually say and understand it, you can't possibly call it a mistake: instead of changing the world so it fits the rules you use to describe it, change your rules so they fit the world.

  12. MJ said,

    August 6, 2008 @ 10:45 pm

    Can one misuse a word? How would that be different from misapplying it? Consider two cases:

    A. John is unfazed, and seems so. I say "John is nonplussed."

    B. John's shirt is red, but in this light it looks pink. I say "John's shirt is pink."

    Quine argued that there is no substantive difference between these two types of cases. One might say: but in (A), you are confused about the meaning of nonplussed; whereas in (B), you are confused about the color of John's shirt. This would imply that there's some difference between truths that hold in virtue of meaning (such that when you get those facts wrong, you're confused about meaning) and those that hold in virtue of how the world is (such that when you get those facts wrong, you're merely factually confused). Quine saw no such distinction forthcoming, and neither do most contemporary philosophers.

    I'd've just directed the journalist to "Two Dogmas."

  13. Nathan Myers said,

    August 6, 2008 @ 11:28 pm

    So much for that word. It's a good thing we have more where it came from.

    "Nonplussed" has joined the population of words that tell you more about the speaker than about the topic spoken of.

  14. Brian said,

    August 7, 2008 @ 1:21 am

    Both of those definitions are different from what I thought it meant. I thought "nonplussed" meant unenriched or unduly taxed– as in, an experience leaves one nonplussed if one can't take anything away from it, has literally been "not added to". I never, however, thought that there was such a thing as "plussed".

    Of course, I only ever heard the word used once, and in the context any of these three meanings could have been correct. I doubt I've ever used the word myself.

  15. Russell said,

    August 7, 2008 @ 1:57 am

    Without needing to introduce a term like "misuse," it is nonetheless worthwhile to examine the sources of semantic changes; it may well turn out that the mechanism(s) behind "nonplussed" is interestingly different from "silly" – for instance, is it only situational inference that led to the change in the former, or are morphology and analogy rearing their ugly heads (as Mark suggested)? And one might wish to invoke yet another type of semantic change when technology is involved (how does one "roll" down a power window? what is a "telephone"? why/why not are the communication devices on Star Trek telephones?).

    My personal favorite example of lexical semantic change is one discussed by Gustaf Stern: "bead," which originally meant "prayer," but which underwent quite a shift (presumably due to utterances like "counting one's beads" while actually manipulating…beads).

  16. Rob Gunningham said,

    August 7, 2008 @ 3:43 am

    Do we know this "Geoff" who responded?

    I think that using 'dirt' to mean earth still sounds unpleasantly dirty to Brit.Eng. users.

    To suddenly start using the word nonplussed to mean 'unfazed' is confusing for those who have been using it to mean 'brought to a standstill', but I expect we'll get over it. I sometimes get the feeling that linguists and lexicographers, in their role as impartial observers, can become a bit too enthusiastic to be seen as wholly impartial to changes in language. Face it, you love it.

  17. Faldone said,

    August 7, 2008 @ 7:14 am

    I think the shift in 'peruse' is one from 'read thoroughly' to 'skim'. As for words that have shifted meaning, how quick was the shift of 'egregious' from a compliment to a pejorative term?

  18. Craig Russell said,

    August 7, 2008 @ 9:50 am

    @Faldone

    Depending on your perspective, the shift (in the meaning of egregious) was either almost instantaneous or took thousands of years.

    OED first cites 'egregious' meaning 'remarkable in a good sense' in 1534 ("Peda, the sonne of Penda, an ægregius yonge gentilmanne"), and first cites it meaning 'remarkable in a bad sense' in 1573 ("Thai them selvs cannot dissemble it without egregius impudenci.")

    Given the impreciseness of the correlation between a word's first citation and its actual coining, I would consider this 40-year difference negligible and say that 'egregious' has always had both meanings. I would imagine that many authors in the 16th century would be familiar with the word's etymology from the phrase 'e grege'–"outside of the flock", which could logically mean "outstandingly good" or "outstandingly bad".

    But if you go back to the Latin, the adjective 'egregius' that our word is derived from is ONLY used to mean "excellent, outstanding in a good way". But, in the entry under 'egregius' in the Oxford Latin Dictionary, there is a category of 'ironic' uses–where 'egregius' describes something that is awful, but still means "excellent"–it just means it sarcastically. The OLD cites uses in this sense in Virgil, Cicero, Catullus, Tacitus–so it is reasonable to think that the earliest English uses where 'egregious' means 'awful' might have a hint of sarcasm to them as well. (I would compare this to the expression "I could care less", which has been discussed here before.)

  19. Boris Zakharin said,

    August 7, 2008 @ 9:52 am

    I always thought nonplussed meant unconvinced or dubious as in 'He was nonplussed by that argument"

  20. Mark Liberman said,

    August 7, 2008 @ 9:55 am

    Rob Gunningham: I sometimes get the feeling that linguists and lexicographers, in their role as impartial observers, can become a bit too enthusiastic to be seen as wholly impartial to changes in language. Face it, you love it.

    In the particular case of "nonplussed", I can take it or leave it, with a slight preference for leaving it. I certainly wouldn't use the new sense myself, and I'd recommend others not to use it. On the other hand, I'm sensible enough (I hope) not to allow myself to become William Grant White.

  21. Rob Gunningham said,

    August 7, 2008 @ 11:34 am

    Mark Liberman: I'd recommend others not to use it

    That's interesting. You don't usually make a recommendation like that, do you? I thought you just like to observe how things go, or is that only lexicographers?

  22. Sili said,

    August 7, 2008 @ 11:57 am

    Well – I'm bemused. (A word that I did confuse with "amuse".)

    I've never heard of this new use of "nonplussed" – perhaps because I'm not a native speaker. But I guess I'll have to be wary of it when seeing it in future lest I misinterpret.

    We have similar words in Danish. Most 'famously' "virak" (with the wrong stress on the first syllable) and "forfordele" (from German "vervorteilen"). But more recently – or so the press claims – "bjørnetjeneste", roughly "a bear's favour" after the La Fontaine fable, which 'kids these days' have reïnterpreted as "a bear of a favour", i.e. a big favour.

  23. Martyn Cornell said,

    August 7, 2008 @ 12:24 pm

    "Moot" would be another, although there are probably some who still consider the modern usage, "unimportant or irrelevant," to be incorrect.

    It would certainly still be regarded as incorrect in British English, where "moot" continues to mean "debatable".

    I have never noticed anybody using "nonplussed" to mean "unfazed", or "bemused" to mean "amused", but I shall be on my guard in future – thank you for alerting me.

    My favourite change in meaning is with "soon", which a thousand years ago meant "immediately".

  24. Rick S said,

    August 7, 2008 @ 1:12 pm

    I did a Google search for the back formation "plussed", but almost all hits were false ("non plussed" or "non-plussed", or coinages meaning "approved" or "improved" or "marked with a plus sign"). The first hit, though, was a hilarious column by Jack Winter in the New Yorker of July 25, 1994, in which he tells a story using dozens of similar back formations from negative-polarity-only terms. Recommended reading for a dreary day!

  25. Mark Liberman said,

    August 7, 2008 @ 1:25 pm

    Rob Gunningham: You don't usually make a recommendation like that, do you? I thought you just like to observe how things go…

    I like to think of myself as neither malicious nor stupid, so of course I'm happy to give usage advice — if I'm asked, or if I find myself in a position where advice is appropriate. I've offered such advice dozens of times in Language Log posts over the years, for example here and here.

    On the other hand, I try to give advice based on facts rather than prejudices (though sound advice unfortunately needs to take account of the existence of the prejudiced people that Arnold Zwicky calls "crazies").

    Since a distressingly large proportion of the people offering usage advice are in fact crazies — or to put it more politely, people who present their badly-informed prejudices in the guise of facts — I often find myself in the position of offering advice that is mostly about "how to defend yourself from bad advice about writing". But that doesn't mean that I don't think that good advice exists.

    Like others here at Language Log, I've often referred approvingly to Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage, which is not, as the saying goes, chopped liver, but rather is a work where issues of English usage are considered in a reality-based sort of way.

    And I've even suggested that we might someday have something worth calling Prescriptivist Science. But to get to that point, I argued, we'd need to rescue that word from its curious fate:

    It's as if we called witch-doctors "prescriptivists" because they prescribe on the basis of magical thinking about imaginary spirits, while calling practitioners of evidence-based medicine "descriptivists" because their recommendations are based on the factual relationship between remedies and their consequences.

    That, you'll note, implies a recommendation about word usage — though I don't delude myself that this particular recommendation is likely to have any more impact than others of its kind.

  26. Linda the Copy Editor said,

    August 7, 2008 @ 2:51 pm

    I have come to the point that I think "nonplussed" should just not be used in writing, since 1/3 of readers will be sure it means one thing, 1/3 will be sure it means the exact opposite, and 1/3 will sit there trying to guess what the writer thought it meant. I don't like to take perfectly nice words away from people, but there are plenty of contexts where either meaning is plausible, and it's pointless to write a sentence that basically means (or will be taken to mean) that someone either was or wasn't fazed by something.

    (Next we can discuss whether the verb "faze" has been wiped out by "phase.")

  27. Rob Gunningham said,

    August 7, 2008 @ 3:06 pm

    I've been ignoring the recommendations to buy Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage mostly because of the expense, but if it's only $13 that's probably, well, what: a litre of gas or a small box of cherry tomatoes? Ok, a bit more, but very cheap.

    If you're going to follow someone's advice about writing, it should be the advice of a good writer.

  28. MikeA said,

    August 7, 2008 @ 3:36 pm

    Perhaps they are beyond the remit of LL, but I've noticed that technical words tend to have very rapid trajectories from specific-to-the-trade to general use, and often the general use is some restricted form:

    "byte" went from "smallest addressable unit of storage" to "8 bits" in about 20 years, when non-technical folks started buying personal computers, and former used-car salesmen started selling them.

    Baud: went from (roughly) "symbols per second" to "bits per second" in, again, about twenty years at about the same time for about the same reason: "Well, that's what it is for _my_ system"

    The most rapid transition I've seen was the use of Bluetooth (short-range wireless communication of a particular trademarked form) to "mobile-phone headset", in under five years. Again "Well, that's what _mine_ is".

  29. Nathan Myers said,

    August 7, 2008 @ 3:48 pm

    I'm still, er, nonplussed by my wife's family's use of "terrific" to mean "satisfactory". I can only understand it, er, ironically.

  30. Andy J said,

    August 7, 2008 @ 5:01 pm

    I think Linda the Copy Editor's point is a good one. We can't stop the changes which occur with language, either in terms of the meanings of words, or the evolution* of syntax, but it behoves professional users of written or spoken language to resist those pointless changes which arise simply out of ignorance or laziness (such as eggcorns), in order to slow the rate of change. I am not advocating an elitist or prescriptivist approach per se, just a certain amount of sand in the engine of change.
    *I use the word evolution here in a neutral sense, not wishing imply that it is either bad or good.

  31. Christopher Stone said,

    August 7, 2008 @ 5:35 pm

    "…it behoves professional users of written or spoken language to resist those pointless changes which arise simply out of ignorance or laziness (such as eggcorns), in order to slow the rate of change."

    Saying that some changes in language are 'pointless' is a bit of a misnomer; it leads us to believe that there are other changes (more than not) that have a reason or ultimate goal behind their change. This simply isn't true in most cases. While I'm sure there have been many cases of teleological language change, most kinds of language change are not done with a specific goal in mind.

    As for saying eggcorns (and aspects of language change) simply the product of laziness or ignorance–those are the kinds of words used all the time to deride changes in language or dialects that are simply different. Just because something is following a different logic than your own doesn't make it lazy or ignorant. Sometimes different is just different. In terms of eggcorns especially, the changes represent a reconceptualization of the word and what it represents– I find it hard to believe that recategorizing a word or group of words is simply the product of something that could be called "lazy".

    But in any case, in what cases would it behoove the professional user to resist language change? Presumably, professionals are only so because they rely on a consumer base to provide them with a means for a salary. Part of the skills of being a professional includes learning how to explain your profession to those who aren't necessarily knowledgeable in your subject. Simply ignoring the change that's going on around you because you don't feel that your customers are worth getting to know seems to me a self-defeating strategy at best.

  32. Rob Gunningham said,

    August 7, 2008 @ 6:59 pm

    Professionals is a horrible eighties expression used by people who work for Michael Douglas's character in The Bonfire of the Vanities, and I'm surprised to hear linguists using it with a straight face. Professionals as opposed to what? Amateurs?

  33. Nathan Myers said,

    August 7, 2008 @ 8:09 pm

    Christopher: The overwhelming majority of changes to languages, lately, do have a purpose. We coin words for new concepts, or newly important concepts. The arbitrary changes favored for discussion here are favored because they are interestingly arbitrary. The changes that have an obvious purpose aren't interesting. Around here, "lazy" is a technical term, meaning that the speaker hasn't taken the time or developed the interest to understand the origins of an expression. Some changes happen through awareness of detail, and others through lack of awareness, and the difference is interesting enough to note. Our approval or disapproval is, er, moot.

  34. Christopher Stone said,

    August 7, 2008 @ 9:43 pm

    @Nathan:

    I guess when I hear "language change", I tend to think of changes in the grammar (like "dove" replacing "dived" as a past form of "dive"). When talking about language change not being teleological, I was referring more to changes in meaning within specific words (because of the topic of the post). When talking about new word coinages or products of productive morphology, there's obviously a lot of new words consciously being created by the commercial world (among other actors). In the context of "nonplussed", I doubt that the change to "unfazed" (which I use myself) was something done on purpose, although I certainly see your point about being interested in _why_ that change happened in the first place.

    "Lazy" as a technical term for inattention to etymology seems like a poor choice of word, given how often the word is used by prescriptivists (both knowledgeable and otherwise) to describe those who speak dialects that aren't valued by the mainstream. Perhaps I'm overly sensitive to words like that because of my own research interests (AAVE, CE, Appalachian English, and other "non-standard" dialects) and the overwhelming stigma they face.

  35. dr pepper said,

    August 8, 2008 @ 12:33 am

    @ Sili

    > We have similar words in Danish. Most 'famously' "virak" (with the wrong
    > stress on the first syllable) and "forfordele" (from German
    > "vervorteilen"). But more recently – or so the press claims –
    > "bjørnetjeneste", roughly "a bear's favour" after the La Fontaine
    > fable, which 'kids these days' have reïnterpreted as "a bear of a
    > favour", i.e. a big favour.

    In the US it would mean a very difficult and burdensome favor, the kind that makes you resent the person who asked no matter how agreeable you acted.

  36. dr pepper said,

    August 8, 2008 @ 12:34 am

    BTW "pink" = "red" if you're a traditional british fox hunter.

  37. Mr Punch said,

    August 8, 2008 @ 7:16 am

    There's a difference between a word with an evolving definition, and one that is taken to mean the opposite of its formerly established sense. The latter case is certainly open to charges of "misuse": either the newly imputed meaning is wrong (and the word shouldn't be used that way), or the word doesn't mean anything (and shouldn't be used at all).

  38. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    August 8, 2008 @ 9:22 am

    I have come to the point that I think "nonplussed" should just not be used in writing, since 1/3 of readers will be sure it means one thing, 1/3 will be sure it means the exact opposite, and 1/3 will sit there trying to guess what the writer thought it meant.

    Bryan Garner refers to such problematic words that are undergoing a semantic shift as "skunked terms." See here for more.

  39. Silkenray said,

    August 8, 2008 @ 12:05 pm

    I hope you never use the word "awful", then, Mr. Punch. It was originally used to describe things that filled a person with awe. Now it means quite the opposite.

    It happens all the time.

  40. Josh Millard . com » Recursive snark said,

    August 8, 2008 @ 2:34 pm

    [...] an old trope, but I've just spotted it for the nth time over in a comment at Language Log, looking like this: "Nonplussed" has joined the [...]

  41. Andy J said,

    August 9, 2008 @ 5:09 pm

    @ Christopher Stone.
    My choice of the word pointless was deliberate. Where the English language is replete with synonyms, or words with useful nuances in their difference, there is no value to the language (ie it is pointless) in creating yet another synonym by changing or adding to the existing, but entirely separate, meaning of a word. The example of nonplussed to mean unfazed is pointless because unfazed works perfectly well, as do the several other synonyms which already exist for unfazed. My second remark concerned laziness and ignorance. If a writer like Shakespeare or James Joyce wants to play games with the language it is generally to the benefit of the language, but when someone is ignorant of the difference between the words "there", "their" and "they're" it does no service to the language to allow that writer to persist in such misuse on the grounds that we must not be prescriptive. Laziness can result in similar unnecessary errors, when someone is careless or indeed "couldn't care less" about whether their use of a word is correct or not.
    @Rob Cunningham. I agree that the word professional has become somewhat debased. However I meant it to stand for those like journalists, authors, editors etc who earn their living from writing, and their verbal counterparts such as television and radio presenters

  42. Nada said,

    August 10, 2008 @ 10:30 am

    @Chris and others:

    The journalist was decrying the use of the word "peruse" to mean "skim" as opposed to "examine thoroughly".

    Total speculation, but.. I think the reason "peruse" has gotten the meaning "skim" is that there are valid uses like, "She perused the relevant literature," and "He perused the contents of the magazine rack," meaning that they exhausted the possibilities of the literature or the magazine rack, going through every or almost every item until the possibilities of the group as a whole were used up – but possibly just skimmed the contents of each item. That is, in the course of perusing the author's oeuvre, you might skim her juvenalia and minor works. Heck, you might skim everything, and still legitimately say you perused the oeuvre. I think that because "peruse" is so often applied to a collection or readable material, the meaning of the action you do to the individual components of the collection has bled into the meaning of the action you do to the collection as a whole.

  43. Hans Henrik Juhl said,

    August 10, 2008 @ 12:39 pm

    I can honestly say, that I have never before heard of this new meaning of nonplussed – then again it's not a word that pops up too often

  44. Christopher Stone said,

    August 11, 2008 @ 3:38 pm

    Where the English language is replete with synonyms, or words with useful nuances in their difference, there is no value to the language (ie it is pointless) in creating yet another synonym by changing or adding to the existing, but entirely separate, meaning of a word.

    Let me see if I understand this logic:
    English has a lot of synonyms: this is good. English is getting more synonyms: this is bad. At what point did English reach the point where more synonyms is valueless? Who are you to decide what are good synonyms and what are bad ones? Languages rarely tolerate true synonyms; usually when two words have identical meanings, they get differentiated (by generalizing or specializing their meaning, by changing what that word says about the speakers who use it, etc.). So the change in "nonplussed", even if its change does mean the same as "unfazed", won't stay that way forever. Either it will change its meaning again (or "unfazed" will) or it will begin to take on different connotations; maybe people who use "nonplussed" will be seen as pompous or highly educated (or both). That's the beauty of language change: it doesn't wait for language mavens to cry foul before doing its own thing.

  45. elysha said,

    August 13, 2008 @ 3:25 pm

    We're all constantly learning our native language, or at least keeping up with our local linguistic communities. But the language learning process isn't perfect. It's those imperfections in our attempts to mimic our parents or peers that causes change. For example, despite being fairly well-read, to me nonplussed means 'unimpressed', i.e. one step further than unfazed, as in "Simon Cowell always seems a little nonplussed by the American Idol contestants." It's a relatively rare word, and one that I most often encounter in writing, so there's a limited data set to work from , but I guess I just never caught on from context that others were using it to mean the exact opposite. I also never knew peruse could mean 'to read thoroughly'. Part of the problem might be that when these rare words are used, often there's not enough context to contradict a stored meaning. Thus it persists and is in fact strengthened because the listener assumes the speaker shares the same mental representation of that word. There's just very little opportunity for correction by context.

  46. Andy J said,

    August 14, 2008 @ 2:21 pm

    Until Mark Liberman's later post on his Madonna status, I had assumed this thread was largely moribund.
    @Christopher Stone. If there is any justification for prescriptivism (say in the comments in a dictionary as to usage or in house style manuals for publications) then deprecating and discouraging the hyperthetical use of "white" as a synonym for "black" – even though many speakers choose to do so through ignorance – seems to me to be a good thing. In the real world, sometimes words obtain vogue meanings of this kind (the use of "bad" to mean "very good" in street slang comes to mind) not through ignorance but almost as a deliberate challenge to convention. Fortunately these latter usages often wither and die fairly quickly, and the world moves on leaving the original meaning largely unscathed. Not so the less familiar misuse which, through repetition in its novel sense in the media, enters the canon and ousts the former meaning like a cuckoo hatchling in the nest. As an example, an idiom whose original meaning is all but lost these days is "to beg the question". This is a shame because in its original it was a succinct way of saying "to presume the truth of a proposition that the proposer was seeking to prove" – not an instantly attractive phrase. Through ignorance (I maintain) the more universal usage today is that it means "to prompt the question to be asked".

  47. Pensive Frog » Blog Archive » Bewitched, bothered, and nonplussed said,

    August 18, 2008 @ 3:35 pm

    [...] "nonplussed" means? Well, you probably don't. I didn't. Until I read this detailed explanation at the Language Log. Now I have to wonder about all the other words I've been using wrong. At [...]

  48. Ann Burlingham said,

    April 27, 2009 @ 6:59 pm

    Until I read about nonplussed and bemused today, I had no idea anyone was using these words differently from me – frankly, I'm unused to hearing anyone but me use them. But I'm glad I had just read up, as I heard Jill Sobule being interviewed on NPR's Sound Bites tonight, using "nonplussed" in a way I would have been confused by yesterday.

    As to the comment by another Ann that "silly" isn't a good example, I know someone who refuses to use that very word, based on its former meaning. Such silliness has got to stop. While I will keep on using such words as I understand them, and, when asked, I will point out to writer friends the nuances of words they appear to know only one meaning of, I will not be nonplussed or pretend bemusement when people use these newer meanings around me. I will be unfussed and unfazed.

  49. salubrious | Fully (sic) said,

    June 21, 2011 @ 7:28 pm

    [...] Log has some discussion of 'nonplussed' here and [...]

  50. Commonly Confused Words | Wordnik ~ all the words said,

    August 15, 2011 @ 11:37 am

    [...] nonplussed is often mistaken for unfazed, unperturbed, and calm and collected. According to Language Log, this may be because: The other words that mean something similar to the traditional sense of [...]

  51. Thar said,

    January 9, 2012 @ 8:25 am

    To me nonplussed has always had elements of both meanings discussed in this article.

    To illustrate; say you meet someone on the street, in a bar, anyplace where you strike up a conversation. The two of you are having normal conversation, talking about the weather, sports teams and out of the blue the person looks at you and says "I killed a person once, with my bare hands". I could be both confused, surprised and uncertain and at a complete loss as to how to respond while at the same time being unimpressed, calm and unperturbed. The second meaning unimpressed, unfazed could have significance in so much as the person was intending to impress me with what they said.

    So I might look at them and say, "I am nonplussed by your comment".

    In fact this did pretty much just happen to me. The person did not say he killed someone, but they did suddenly come out with something that was unrelated to what we where discussing and obviously intended to impress me. I was at a loss as to why he said it but it was obvious he meant to impress me, which he failed to do. I just looked at him and said "I am nonplussed as well as unimpressed" and that was the end of the conversation as I turned and left.

    I felt that nonplussed contained both my meanings but wished to drive home the fact that what he said, while confusing me, failed to impress me.

  52. How to see a sea of C++ and be non-nonplussed | hercles said,

    March 2, 2013 @ 11:42 am

    [...] I get into the main topic, read this if my usage of 'non-nonplussed' has left you with the semantic equivalent of trying to [...]

  53. kim said,

    May 9, 2014 @ 9:56 pm

    Love this LL because I love etymology! I especially like the fact that it employs balanced, scholarly discussion, rather than snarky remarks and retorts. On occasion I can be one of those radical grammar snobs, but I'm recognizing that in the world of texting, I'm going to have to ease up a little. Language is an evolving construct. Pieces like this one remind me that many words we use today don't mean what they were originally meant to mean. That's not to say I condone or endorse the use of texting shortforms or acronyms in everyday language use–there's too much room for confusion and true miscommunication in those cases. But in other situations, alright… I guess I need to chill out about a lot of it. Thanks for the lesson in humility :-)

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