Thursday, April 08, 2004

That's the definition? I'm nonplused!

I'm reading back posts of Verbal Energy, and I'm in love. This blog is great. I had to stop after reading this entry on the real meaning of "nonplused," which doesn't mean "unimpressed" after all.
Instead it means perplexed or bewildered. The word derives from Latin words meaning "no more." The metaphor behind "nonplused" — its backstory, as they say in Hollywood — is the idea of being so befuddled — by someone else's bizarre behavior, for instance — that one can go, speak, or act "no more" or no further; one is left, at least figuratively, speechless and paralyzed with bafflement.
So where did it come from? Could it be ... French?
"Nonplus" looks a lot like French, which gave us "nonchalant," a word that lives in the same neighborhood as "unimpressed." One can imagine a couple of hip young Frenchmen at their favorite cafe trying to appear detached as they check out a passing damsel. "I'm not much impressed," one might say. "Moi non plus ("Me neither!"), the other might counter.
I so want that to be the etymology. Alas, American Heritage says it has Latin roots: [From Latin non plus, no more].

So, what to do with a word so misused? Back off.
All this reminds me why I don't use "nonplused" much myself. Sometimes words go through a phase something like adolescence when they morph from one meaning to another, and it's well to leave them alone until they have settled securely into a new identity. Smart writers do well to focus on words whose popular usage is in sync with what the dictionary calls for.
Fantastic advice from a fantastico blog.


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