I’m nonplussed – are you?


I’m tired of thinking about Lansdowne – so let’s not.

I was reading a novel the other day and came across a sentence that used the word “nonplussed” but in a way that initially confused me– it was used as the opposite of its meaning. I was thrown out of the narrative completely and had to look it up.

It turns out that nonplussed has two meanings – there’s the original, to be perplexed and confused, unsure how to react. And then there’s the meaning labelled “Informal North American,” which appears to be the exact opposite – not at all perturbed or disconcerted – indeed, calm and unruffled. This was the usage I had run across in the (now forgotten) novel.

I know there are other words with opposite meanings, called contronyms – words like “dust,” meaning both to put dust on and take dust off. Or pitted, meaning both with pits, and without pits.

But it strikes me that the “other” meaning of nonplussed is just the result of sloppy or approximate thinking – assuming that nonplussed must be the opposite of plussed, which doesn’t exist but rhymes with fussed….

So why get fussed about nonplussed? Usage changes, language is fluid, we know that. And in the end, yes, that’s the conclusion.

But somehow it still niggles that so many people just simply had it wrong, enough that the tide turned and wrong became right.

When wrong becomes right – is that a sign of a healthy democracy where the people rule, or is it a more worrisome analogy for the state of the world? You decide – and whatever you decide will eventually be right.

—Liz McKeen

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