I am nonplussed about the shifting definition of nonplussed.

In the last 24 hours, I've read two professionally published pieces of writing - a collection of essays by David Sedaris and a news article - where the word "nonplussed" was used incorrectly. 

Nonplussed means to be surprised and confused to such a degree that a person is uncertain about how to react.

When you are nonplussed, you are startled. Befuddled. Shocked. Discombobulated. 

Not unaffected. Not calm. Not bemused. Despite how so many people - including experienced writers and their editors - might think. 

Websters offers an alternate definition of nonplussed (not bothered, surprised, or impressed by something) but also indicates that this definition is chiefly used in the United States.

Then it adds:

NOTE: The use of nonplussed to mean "unimpressed" is an Americanism that has become increasingly common in recent decades and now appears frequently in published writing. It apparently arose from confusion over the meaning of nonplussed in ambiguous contexts, and it continues to be widely regarded as an error.

In other words, Americans have screwed up the use of this word so often that we must acknowledge that there is alternate, albeit ridiculous definition used only in the stupid Americans. 

I understand that language is constantly evolving, but are we really going to entirely reverse the definition of this word? Changes in the meaning and usage of words is a normal part of an evolving language, but to shift the opposite meaning seems a little ridiculous to me.  

I feel the same about the phrase "Begs the question." While it's so often used to imply that something someone has said or done has prompted a question or wonderment (His inability to hit the baseball begs the question: Does he belong in the major leagues?), it's actually a phrase that defines a certain type of circular logic. 

For example, "The death penalty is wrong because killing people is immoral" is an example of begging the question because it argues that the death penalty is wrong because the death penalty is wrong. 

As a former debate champion and lover of logic, I am a huge fan of the proper use of "begs the question."

Despite my strong feelings, I fear that the true meaning of "begs the question" is a lost cause. It's far more likely to hear someone use the phrase improperly these days, and I suspect that in another decade or two, the proper definition will be lost forever. 

I'm willing to cede ground on "begs the question." Grudgingly. 

But nonplussed? That is a hill I'm willing to die on. A fight that must be fought. A battle I'm willing to wage, and you should, too. Shifting definitions is a perfectly acceptable result of an evolving and ever-changing language, but reversing a definition entirely is something I cannot abide.

I am nonplussed about the shifting definition of nonplussed. I am outraged. Defiant. Activated and ready to fight.

I'm sure you find this as important and pressing an issue as I do.  


Joining the war against nonplussed is flammable/inflammable

Since launching my war against the word “nonplussed” last week, the campaign has been proceeding surprisingly well. In addition to my own use of the word “nonplussed” at least half a dozen times last week, I’ve received reports from several recruits who have also been aggressively using this ridiculous word in an effort to confuse people and ultimately turn them against it as well. At least two recruits have even utilized “plussed” in a sentence, which is a word that doesn’t actually exist except NOW IT DOES!

And good news! I’m pleased to report that recent negotiations have led to an agreement with forces hoping to align themselves with the anti-nonplussed movement. In return for their support, I have pledged to launch a new offensive against the words “flammable” and “inflammable.”

“Flammable” and “inflammable,” in case you didn’t know, mean exactly the same thing. Conveniently, I despise the stupidity of these two words as well.

image image

My plan of attack is simple:

Utilize the words “flammable” and “inflammable” in the same conversation interchangeably. If possible, use the two words in the same sentence. Act as nonchalantly as possible while doing so.

For example:

The problem with wearing a long beard is that human hair is highly flammable, so until we find a way to make whiskers less inflammable, men with beards should avoid roasting highly inflammable marshmallows over a campfire.

The goal of this offensive is to draw awareness to the stupidity of these two words and their single definition in hopes that one of them (“inflammable” would be my choice) is eliminated from the English lexicon altogether.

Finding legitimate uses for these two words in everyday life is admittedly challenging, but when found, I think the execution of this plan will be great fun.

Who is with me?

“Nonplussed” is going down.

It’s such a stupid word. It’s definition is “not surprised,” but we all know that it’s supposed to mean the opposite.

So stupid.

In protest of this stupid word, I will be taking the following actions:

  1. I will use the word “nonplussed” in place of the word “surprised” whenever possible. I will invent moments of surprise and shock if necessary. I’m going to use the hell out of the word.
  2. I will use the word “plussed” (not a real word) to describe a state of being not surprised. If “nonplussed” means surprised, then plussed is going to mean “surprised,” damn it. I’m going to take this inane word to it’s logically inane conclusion.

Who is with me?

One unintended consequence of this plan will be to annoy the hell out of my wife, but sometimes you must take a stand against the forces of definitional evil even at your own peril.

I’ll show this word what happens you you’re supposed to mean one thing and you choose to mean the opposite.