Vocab Lab: Color Me Nonplussed

Image"I've been really happy by how nonplussed they've been by the whole thing." — Senator Barack Obama on his daughters' response to the presidential campaign, People, Aug. 4, 2008

It seems even Harvard graduate/widely acknowledged smart guy Barack Obama doesn't know the meaning of the word "nonplussed." He's in good company. I'd wager more people get "nonplussed" wrong than right — frequently going so far as to use the word to express nearly the opposite of what they mean. As the misuse of "nonplussed" threatens to overwhelm the proper use, we at Editorializing feel duty-bound to set the record straight.

Fellow word nerd and Podictionary host Charles Hodgson cites UrbanDictionary.com's assessment that "nonplussed" is "often misused as meaning unfazed, but actually means bewildered." (Reflecting on his fruitless search for the mythical "plussed," Hodgson ventures, "So if people thought nonplussed meant 'unfazed' or 'oblivious,' wouldn't plussed logically mean 'fazed' and 'blivious?' Well, I guess not.")

But where Hodgson has done me a personal favor is in revealing: "The reason that nonplussed means 'bewildered' is that it more literally means 'stopped in your tracks.' Nonplus means you can't go forward, just like its components non and plus might suggest." "Non," of course, is French for "no"; "plus" is French for "more." Thus if you are nonplussed, you can go no farther; you stand at a crossroads, stymied. Such circumstances do tend to perplex.

Now that I've made the connection between being unable to proceed and being nonplussed — ain't etymology grand? — I'm free to use the word with impunity. To reinforce my (and hopefully your) newfound freedom, please enjoy this very special guest appearance by the Big Kahuna, the capo di tutti capi ... the Oxford English Dictionary:

Brought to a nonplus or standstill; at a nonplus; perplexed, confounded.

"Non," of course, is French for "no"; "plus" is French for "more." Thus if you are nonplussed, you can go no farther; you stand at a crossroads, stymied.

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. 1826 J. WILSON Noctes Ambrosianae in Wks. (1855) I. 140 [He] stares round the company with his vacant and nonplussed eyes. 1828 T. CARLYLE Crit. & Misc. Ess. (1857) I. 137 ëBlown upí by nonplussed and justly exasperated Review-reviewers! 1886 E. L. BYNNER Agnes Surriage xvii, She swept from the room, leaving the nonplussed artist to puzzle over the cause of her..behavior. 1938 E. BOWEN Death of Heart III. ii. 354 By coming in, however, she had brought whatever there was to a nonplussed pause. 1975 M. RUSSELL Murder by Mile x. 106 He saw Vanessa standing in a nonplussed attitude at the closed door. 1993 U. CHATTERJEE Last Burden (1994) i. 7 Her pitted and usually nonplussed face becomes even more befuddled whenever she hears English.

Leave it to the OED to add:

nonplussedness n. rare
1972 K. BONFIGLIOLI Don't point that Thing at Me iv. 35 To hide my *non-plussedness I ordered Jock to make coffee. 1996 Newcastle Herald (Austral.) 17 Aug., Nonplussed that pelma wasn't in my lexicographic bible.., I wrote to its editor for comfort in my nonplussedness [don't even get us started on "pelma"].

ImageIf Obama's elected president, we expect the post-Bush White House will present regular opportunities for nonplussedness. As for his daughters, the candidate recently illustrated an instance of potential nonplussedness for his first born. In the mini-documentary Four Days in Denver: Behind the Scenes at the 2008 DNC, Michelle Obama tells Barack that she's going to be a guest on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and that since the Jonas Brothers are also scheduled to appear, she's taking Malia and Sasha along. Malia, it seems, is enamored of Nick Jonas. After accepting a low-five from Michelle and confirming, "That's big," he says:

I've got a bet with Malia ... She's been talking about how when she sees her Jonas Brothers favorite ... Nick ... she's going to be all sophisticated. I said, "Malia, I will bet you five dollars that you will stammer and not have anything to say when you see Nick." And she's all, "No, no ... I'm sure I'll say, 'I'm a really big fan' ... [and that] I really enjoy his music." And I [said], "You won't say that; you'll be, like, 'Ah ... ah ... ah.'"

In that circumstance, he implies, at least one of his daughters would, in fact, be nonplussed.

Obama's campaign, meanwhile, may be nonplussed by the undecided voters — operatives and volunteers are at a loss; what more can they say at this point? The undecided are themselves apparently nonplussed (they can't select a candidate and therefore may be unable to proceed to the voting booth).

No matter what, in a few days we'll all be able to move on — which is a plus.