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 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: 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.