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March 11, 2009

nonplussed — the most vexing word in the English language


Ever since I first encountered it in my teen years, I've dutifully gone and looked it up, then made a serious effort to memorize its meaning so as not to ever have to do so again.

And yet, last night when it appeared in something I was reading, for maybe the fiftieth time in my life I wasn't sure if it meant confused/perplexed — or the opposite.

Here's a dictionary definition of nonplussed: "perplexed; confused; bewildered; disconcerted."

Its origin: "From Latin non plus, no more: non, not; see non + plus, more."

A synonym: "At a loss."

But how do we get from the Latin to the English?

What am I missing?

On second thought, don't answer.

FunFact: As if I'm not already confused enough, it can be spelled either "nonplussed" or "nonplused."

FunFact #2: It's also a noun meaning "A state of perplexity, confusion or bewilderment."

So I guess you'd say "I'm in a nonplus."

You speak for both of us.


Note added at 4:13 p.m. the same day: On reading the post just now after it appeared on the site, the penny finally dropped.

At long last, a mnemonic tool.

See, the word has always bewildered and confused me — that is, it's nonplussed me.

So nonplus nonplusses me.

So obvious now, like so many things once you figure them out.

March 11, 2009 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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OK, now explain the "IN-" prefix: incoherent means not coherent, while inflammable means more-than-usually flammable. Huh?

And of course, as Churchill supposedly said, the US and UK are great peoples seperated by a common language. An example, of which I was reminded by a post on Volokh.com:

In Parliament, when something is tabled, it is put on the table [for immediate discussion/action], which makes sense. But in Congress (or other Robert's Rules following organisations) tabling means taking it OFF the table, ie stopping discussion/action. Must make for some confusion at NATO meetings...

Posted by: teqjack | Mar 11, 2009 8:49:40 PM

Great post! I found it when looking for info on "nonplussed." I swear I heard someone misuse it the other night.

Posted by: Zach | Mar 11, 2009 7:28:17 PM

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