That’s not what nonplussed means

“I don’t understand why anyone goes to see movies any more. And another superhero film? I couldn’t be more nonplussed.”

I followed up with the person who posted this to make certain I understood them. They meant that they couldn’t care less about seeing another superhero movie. And they expressed amusement that I didn’t know what nonplussed meant.

I sent them a link to an actual definition.

They stopped talking to me.

It isn’t used often, and I’m quite certain that if the word “nonplussed” doesn’t go extinct altogether, that very soon the word will come to mean “not impressed, uninterested, or unmoved.”

But that’s almost the exact opposite of what it means.

nonplussed adjective, 1. filled with bewilderment, 2. perplexed completely, 3. dumbfounded, 4. rendered speechless or incapable of further action.

The word comes to English from a Latin phrase: non plus, literally “no more,” as in “nothing more to do.” According to Oxford, it first appeared in English in the late 1500s as a noun meaning, “a point at which no more can be done, a dead end.” Within a century it had come to mean a state of being so exasperated by an intolerable event or insoluble problem to the point of being overwhelmed—a point when one is ready to throw their hands in the air and shout, “I can’t take any more of this!”

As time went on, it frequently referred to a situation during an argument or conversation in which one person says something so unbelievable or mind boggling, that the other person just stares back, speechless, perhaps with their mouth hanging open in consternation.

I remember I used to see the word a lot in books I read during elementary and middle school. There would be a discussion going on between two or more characters, and eventually one of the characters, instead of replying to a particularly witty statement of the other, would be nonplussed. I remember trying to work out the meaning from the context, and being confused until I got hold of a dictionary. Then I became rather fond of the word.

I think the problem (besides the fact that people aren’t being taught Latin and Greek roots any more) is that the word doesn’t look like it is describing something as energetic and frantic as “being exasperated to the point of being overwhelmed.” Flabbergasted or dumbfounded are active states. When a person is in that frame of mind they do things like a double-take, or their mouth drops open and their eyes bug out.

Nonplussed looks like a much more laid back, almost contemplative word.

Which is a shame. Dumbfounded and flabbergasted are great words, don’t get me wrong, but neither conveys both the idea of being perplexed and at one’s wit’s end in quite the same way as nonplussed once did.

However, language is a living thing. So I know in the long run it’s a losing battle. Right now, at least half the readers will think it means the person is unconcerned and cool as a cucumber if you do use it.

And that’s a real shame.

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About fontfolly

I've loved reading for as long as I can remember. I write fantasy, science fiction, mystery, and nonfiction. For more than 20 years I edited and published an anthropomorphic sci-fi/space opera literary fanzine. I attend and work on the staff for several anthropormorphics, anime, and science fiction conventions. I live near Seattle with my wonderful husband, still completely amazed that he puts up with me at all.

2 responses to “That’s not what nonplussed means”

  1. L. says :

    “Bemused” is “Nonplussed’s” brother from another mother– and misused in almost the same way.

    • fontfolly says :

      Oh! Yes! One of my early short story collaborations (this was back in the 80s) included a big argument where I was trying to explain to my co-writer that neither bemused or mused were synonyms for “amused.”

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