A colleague has suffered a blow this week - he found out that one of his favorite words doesn't mean what he thought it meant. That can be a real shock for a
writer. So I'm grateful that he has offered his learning experience as grist for this column.
The word in question (as the alert headline reader will have intuited) is "nonplused," which turns out not to mean "unimpressed," as he had thought, or even "unfazed." 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.
But where would an association with "unimpressed" come from? The two words sound somewhat alike, and one can imagine the "no more" to suggest "I gave it no more thought."
"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.
And although bewilderment is a different state from being unimpressed, I find that "nonplused" tends to be used in ways that don't provide many contextual clues. The speechlessness of bewilderment sounds a lot like the shrug of being unimpressed. If you don't know already what "nonplused" is supposed to mean, you won't be much enlightened by examples of the word in print.
For example, the ferries that connect Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard with the Massachusetts mainland are considering a ban, for safety reasons, on passengers remaining in their cars as the boats are under way. A local newspaper reports a steamship authority official being "nonplused" by a protesting e-mail from a woman who likes to sleep in her car on the 6 a.m. ferry.
But a California newspaper's account of a high school football game described the winning coach as "nonplused" but then went on to quote him at some length. Apparently no one explained to him the part about being rendered speechless.
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.
And it's not as if English doesn't offer a cornucopia of alternatives to "nonplused." There's "flummoxed," somehow bovine-sounding ("dumb ox" seems concealed within), but earnest and well-meaning, too. There's "baffled."
There's the more tightly wound "perplexed." (Can't you just imagine the guy who's "perplexed" impatiently snapping a rubber band against the inside of his wrist?)
There's "mystified," rooted in Greek and Latin (my rational self knows) but with a certain Druidic overtone (my fanciful side imagines, because it sounds like "mist").
There's the state of "puzzlement" in which Yul Brynner continually finds himself in "The King and I."
There's even "bemusement," although that word, too, is damaged goods in that it's so often used incorrectly as an arty alternative to "amusement."
Maybe what all this suggests is that we need a richer vocabulary to describe states of detachment, of being unimpressed, unfazed, unflapped.