The Trouble with Nonplussed

Ron Swanson does not approve of changing the dictionary to suit people who use words wrong.

Ron Swanson does not approve of changing the dictionary to suit people who misuse words.

Nonplussed is a troublesome word. It in no way sounds like what it means, and is, in fact, one of the most commonly misused words in the English language. It makes Inigo Montoya of all vocab fiends, who have no choice but to place sympathetic hands on their friends’ shoulders while saying, “I do not think that word means what you think it means.”

It’s recently come to my attention that the good folks who govern English dictionaries are making allowances by appending an informal definition of the word. The proper definition of nonplussed is: (of a person) surprised and confused so much that they are unsure how to react.

Most people, however, think the word means unconcerned. Perhaps because it sounds like it should mean unconcerned. Now, there’s an informal definition of the word in the dictionary that takes this into account and states that the alternate definition of the word is: not disconcerted; unperturbed.

I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, language evolves all the time. Words drop out of use, and every generation thinks the additions of the next generation are going to be the end of the English language as we know it.

Then again, by amending the definition of nonplussed, they’ve made it a useless word. It now means confused AND unconcerned? Those two are somewhat mutually exclusive. If you read the sentence: He was nonplussed, and left the room. You now have no idea what the sentence means and have to search for context from the surrounding sentences.

If someone describes someone as nonplussed, you must now ask for clarification. The dictionary editors have ruined the word, and I think that’s a darn shame because it was such a nice word. I’m sure it has all sorts of lovely Latin roots we’ll never know anything about, now.

So that’s the trouble with nonplussed. Too many people used the word the wrong way and now it’s ruined. And the only people who are upset about it are dinosaurs like me who still look words up in the dictionary because we love them.

2 thoughts on “The Trouble with Nonplussed

  1. Oh dear, now you’ve poked the lurking descriptive linguist! :P

    You seem to think the essence of what a language is resides in the dictionary, thus giving the dictionary editors the power to “ruin” a word by including an alternate definition of it. Languages existed long before dictionaries, and many still don’t have a dictionary or even an orthography! English exists in the minds and mouths (and pens and keyboards) of its speakers. The purpose of a dictionary is to describe a language as it is used, not to prescribe its “proper” use.

    If, say, Barack Obama uses “nonplussed” to mean “unfazed” and someone who has never heard the word before looks it up in the dictionary, said dictionary has done its job if it allows the user to understand what Obama meant. So the dictionary editors are right to include an alternate definition that is widely used by native speakers.

    I’ll stop there, but as always when discussing linguistics, I must offer a link to a Language Log post. It includes a description of those Latin roots we’ll never know anything about. Enjoy!

  2. -Kelly O., I was hoping either you or your husband would weigh in! That’s an interesting way to look at the purpose of a dictionary. I’ve always regarded them as bastions of the English language, but you’re right. They’re tools. But aren’t the dictionary editors at cross purposes including contradictory definitions?

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