Nonplussed: The Debate Over Its Controversial Evolution

Few words have inspired as much controversy as nonplussed. Take for instance the following quote from Barack Obama during his first term in office. When asked about how his daughters dealt with intense media scrutiny, he responded, “I’ve been really happy by how nonplussed they’ve been by the whole thing.” For any modern linguist, there’s nothing wrong with this sentence. Nonplussed is commonly used in place of synonyms like unfazed or nonchalant. However, traditional linguists have a huge problem with this. Nonplussed has an entirely different meaning, and thus, a massive debate has taken place over the last decade: should we allow a word’s definition to change over time?

Nonplus was derived from the Latin phrase non plus, which meant “no more, no further”. In the 1580s, the word was used as a noun to mean “a state where nothing more can be done or said”. In the next decade, it transitioned to a verb that meant “to perplex”.

Its current definition, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is “a state of bafflement or perplexity”. “Tea Party activists — many of whom are nonplussed about the prospect of a shutdown — plan to rally outside the Capitol on Thursday,” writes TIME’s Alex Altman. “Cassius was completely nonplussed — used up,” reported the New York Times in 1861. But increasingly, it’s difficult to find nonplussed used correctly.

Part of the blame could be placed on modern dictionaries. While most only reference the original meaning, the online Oxford Dictionary and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language both reference the newer definition. The Oxford Dictionary makes it clear that the new definition, indifferent or unfazed, is a North American trend that’s considered informal. The American Heritage Dictionary refers to the new meaning as a usage problem and advises against it. However, the new meaning’s inclusion in these texts suggests its influence is growing.

Another source of confusion could be the rise of the “smarmonym”. In 2015, The Atlantic detailed this passive-aggressive English language trend, in which words were used to indicate the total opposite meaning. It started with words that naturally had double meanings, like sanction (which can mean both “a penalty” or “official permission”). But it extended to words that were purposely misused. Hugo Lindgren, executive producer for feature films like this year’s Detroit, once tweeted, “Is there a word in the English language that more reliably means its opposite than ‘amicable’?” His followers answered immediately, citing words like cordial, moot, spry, and of course, nonplussed.

Perhaps, the misuse of nonplussed is not a misunderstanding at all. It’s a purposeful evolution backed by a sense of humor. Whatever the case, traditional linguists, like Visual Thesaurus’ Julia Rubiner and Simon Glickman, and the Los Angeles Times’ Meghan Daum, refuse to accept the shift in usage. Daum examined the problem in a 2008 piece and criticized Obama as one of the many people who misuse nonplussed.

Indeed, he did misuse the word, but confidently so as so many people do. Perhaps, if political figures and scholars like Obama have embraced the new meaning of the word, it’s time to let the old meaning go? Maybe this is the age of the smarmonym? To us, the answer isn’t clear. The whole situation has left us nonplussed.

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