Thursday, July 31, 2008

I am nonplussed

My friend the dictionary has let me know not only that I've misunderstood the word nonplussed but that everyone around me misunderstands it too.

I've taken nonplussed to mean "not bothered," "unfazed," as did a colleague in a brief exchange about my son the college student:

"It's a lot more work than high school was."

"Well, I'm sure he's nonplussed about it."

"Oh, he's plussed. He's a little plussed."
Please imagine my rejoinder as Larry David might deliver it, for this conversation is as close as I've ever come to having life imitate Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Plussed, at least as I was using it, is not a word (as I suspected, and my son wasn't fazed anyway). Nonplussed of course means the opposite of what my colleague and I thought it meant. From the Oxford English Dictionary:
nonplus, v. trans.
To bring to a nonplus or standstill; to perplex, confound. Freq. in pa[st]. p[artci]ple. (cf. NONPLUSSED adj.).

nonplussed, adj.
Brought to a nonplus or standstill; at a nonplus; perplexed, confounded.
The words go back to the Latin non plus, meaning "not more," "no further." An OED sample sentence, from Josephine Tey's novel The Franchise Affair (1949): "Now, seeing the actual physical Betty Kane again, he was nonplussed."

Realizing my mistake about the word nonplussed left me nonplussed, but only briefly. It was probably a lot worse for the guy who saw Miss Kane, actual, physical, again.

[Faze: A word that looks as though it must be misspelled, no? I always reassure my students that, yes, it's legit.]

comments: 5

JuliaR said...

Isn't it interesting how we can be mistaken about a word for years and never know it? I do this all the time but now I attribute it to "brain function" instead of ignorance.

I thought it should be "phase" so finding out it is "faze" is interesting, thanks!

JuliaR said...

Faze comes from feeze:
Origin: 1350–1400; ME fese blast, rush, fesen to drive, chase, frighten; cf. OE (Anglian) fésan, (West Saxon) fȳsan

or from feaze:
to untwist (the end of a rope).
[Origin: 1560–70; akin to D vezelen to fray, MD veze frayed edge, OE fæs fringe]


Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for faze, Julia. To be unfazed, then, is to be keeping it together!

Then again, there's Annie Ross' lyric "Twisted" (music by Wardell Gray).

Anonymous said...

This word always reminds me of a line from the late, great Douglas Adams (I think), describing a character as "not just nonplussed; he was positively minused."

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for the quotation, Andy. That line is (among other things) a nice reminder of the real meaning of nonplussed.