Don’t be nonplussed by nonplussed
President Barack Obama has been a thorn in the side of political conservatives for many years. In 2008, he offended a different group of conservatives—linguistic conservatives, the people who insist on proper grammar and often decry change as “ruining the language”—when he said, “I’ve been really happy by how nonplussed [my daughters] have been about the whole thing [his political campaign].”
In an angry article written for the Chicago Tribune, Megan Daum complained, “The word nonplussed does not mean unfazed, unperturbed, or unconcerned. I know most people use it that way, but I really wish they’d stop.” The typical complaint seems to be that it is wrong—and confusing—to use nonplussed to mean the opposite of its traditional definition. This raises two important questions: Can a word have two opposite meanings? And should self-antonyms be avoided?”
A new high point—or not
According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the word nonplussed derives from the noun nonplus, itself a direct borrowing from the Classical Latin nōn plūs, meaning “not more.” The first written record of nonplus in English dates to 1582; the adjective nonplussed, meaning “brought to a nonplus or standstill; at a nonplus; perplexed, confounded,” first appeared in 1606.
Curiously, the meaning of nonplussed could easily have been very different. Nonplus was used briefly as an abbreviation for the Latin phrase non plus ultra, “(let there) not (be) more (sailing) beyond.” This phrase, inscribed on the Pillars of Hercules (i.e., the Straits of Gibraltar) according to classical mythology, marked the edge of explored waters on ancient maps. By analogy, the English borrowing non plus ultra has meant “the highest point or culmination (of)” since at least 1647. Had the abbreviation nonplus caught on, it is easy to imagine that nonplussed would mean “brought to a new high point”—the opposite of “brought to a standstill.”
As those who believe a word cannot be its own antonym might have predicted, nonplus as an abbreviation became obsolete, and for the OED, that is where the story of nonplussed ends. To the chagrin of linguistic conservatives who claim speakers are destroying English by using words “incorrectly,” the meaning of nonplussed is not at a nonplus.
Although nonplussed resisted an opportunity to become its own antonym more than 300 years ago, recently, nonplussed has once again taken two contrary definitions. While several major dictionaries, including the OED and Merriam-Webster, have not yet recognized this shift, the fifth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines nonplussed as both “at a loss for what to think, say, or do; bewildered” and “indifferent or bored.” The second definition comes with a warning attached; it was rejected by 61 percent of the dictionary’s usage panel and should therefore be avoided for clarity.
A careful analysis of American publications from the past 40 years indicates that even the American Heritage Dictionary is linguistically conservative when it comes to the word nonplussed. While the newer definition of nonplussed does not appear in the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA) prior to the 1970s, the new meaning “unfazed” has made up approximately 20 percent of all uses of nonplussed in the past 30 years, compared to about 65 percent for the “standard” definition “perplexed.” Most of the examples of the standard use are written and indicate the use of nonplussed by older speakers in formal settings. An informal survey of college students in an advanced writing seminar (published in an article written for Slate by Ben Yagoda) found that 80 percent believed nonplussed meant “unfazed.” Moreover, Yagoda found that 45 percent of Google search results for nonplussed used the word in the newer sense. These results suggest that the meaning of nonplussed has already shifted for younger speakers and is rapidly shifting for younger (and less formal) media.
Why is this change occurring? A “Maven’s Word of the Day” post from 1999 provides a possible explanation. Speakers may assume from the negative prefix non- that nonplussed means “not (something).” Analogy with the words in-different, un-fazed, dis-affected, and non-chalant, all partial synonyms for the new meaning of nonplussed, could also have contributed to the semantic shift. That said, possible analogy with dis-concerted, un-settled, and even con-fused, all partial synonyms for the original meaning of nonplussed, seem to complicate this argument. Something more must be going on.
That something is probably in the plus. While written evidence does not suggest that usage of the made-up word plussed has increased substantially in the past 200 years, plus has expanded to serve several additional roles over the last century. According to the OED, the use of plus after school grades dates back to 1903 and generalized to emphasize the quality of other nouns by 1921. Plus side dates to 1900, plus size dates to 1927, and plus word dates to 1936. The use of plus to introduce a clause is an even more recent innovation, first appearing in 1963. It is clear that plus both has a long history of linguistic innovation and is typically associated with impressive (or at least notable) things. From this point of view, “indifferent” is a more logical definition than “bewildered” for the word nonplussed. The new meaning certainly seems to be taking hold.
So, can a word be its own antonym? As nonplussed shows, the answer is a resounding “yes.” Does this self-antonym cause undue confusion? Despite the warning from the American Heritage Dictionary, the answer seems to be “no.” Only 10 percent of the appearances of nonplussed in COHA and in the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) were unclear, given two sentences of surrounding context. Even those critics who decry the change in meaning are outraged, rather than confused, by the semantic shift. And for many English speakers, the new meaning actually may be less confusing than the original. In any case, enjoy the self-antonym while it lasts. Language change happens quickly, and the original definition may soon become obsolete. For 80 percent of Ben Yagoda’s students and possibly for Barack Obama, it already has.