Many times people read or hear the term “nonplussed” used in a manner that means impassive or indifferent to an incident that would be typically regarded as extremely upsetting or disturbing, as in, "Charles was nonplussed and merely smiled as the snake made its way across the room." As a matter of fact this is nearly the opposite of what dictionaries define "nonplussed" to signify as in, “To puzzle; to confound; to put to a stand; to stop by embarrassment.” So many wonder what's all the perplexity about "nonplussed"?

This word is kind of neat because there is no such word as plused, or plussed. Just nonplussed or nonplused. The spelling nonplussed is more widespread than nonplused in American English since the double “s” occurs because the second syllable is stressed. The root word is nonplus and it’s derived directly from the Latin phrase non plus implying "not more".

Nonplus began to emerge in English in 1582 as a noun synonymous with quandary that described "a point at which no more can be done, a dead end." Within ten years people began using "nonplus" as a verb and within another decade people who were "nonplussed" were being ‘overwhelmed and exasperated by an event or circumstance that posed an insoluble dilemma or seems intolerable’ as in "I can't take any more of this". So if Charles were to be without a doubt nonplussed about that snake slithering across the room, then rather than just sitting their aloof, there would be shrieking along with wildly waving arms and mad dashes from the room like most normal people.

But for some reason, many people have decided that "nonplussed" means unperturbed or impassive. Oftentimes accepted conventions of word usage change in speech, and the " cool, calm, and collected" habit of being "nonplussed" may soon give way and become the customary meaning in the near future. For example one dictionary defines nonplussed as an adjective meaning surprised or confused then it goes onto also include nonplussed as being used informally in North America as meaning unperturbed. Evan Morris at The Word Detective website says that, Such transformations are actually fairly common in English. "Nice," for instance, originally meant "stupid," and at one point in its evolution meant "wanton," nearly the opposite of our modern "nice.”

Another etymologist theorizes that people suppose that the "non" in "nonplus" must have a negative sense perhaps meaning "not." Even though the word plussed has no definition in English it’s likely that the negative prefix makes many think that the gist of the word must be ‘not something’ rather than ‘utterly or completely something.’ Or there is the similarity with the word unfazed, meaning ‘to take for granted’ and that to be "nonplussed" is to be cool as a cucumber.

Nevertheless, the correct meaning of nonplussed currently prevails, even if there are quite a few instances of the new meaning. For example, “Gates seemed nonplussed by the Net until late 1995. By 1996 he became a fanatic.” (ZDNet, 1999) and “Both authors are nonplussed by the notion of dog fashion shows. ‘If you don’t compromise the dog, what the hell?’ Ms. Knapp said.” (The New York Times, 1999). Speaking of the New York Times, even the editors of The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage seem baffled by the term. They write: “Nonplused does not mean fazed or unfazed. It means bewildered to the point of speechlessness.” Most dictionaries define nonplussed as essentially meaning ‘fazed’ as opposed to ‘unfazed’. Despite all of the bafflement, the reality is that the book takes on the topic and demonstrates that the meaning of nonplussed has certainly come into question since the prior edition had no entry for this expression.

Sources: - Dictionary, Guide, Community and More:


The Maven’s Word of the day:

Merriam-Webster's Collegiate® Dictionary, 10th Edition.

The Word Detective:

It’s funny how a just the mere mention of a word can trigger memories and bring either tears or a smile to your face. In my case, it’s usually tears, those of the good kind.

These days, as I rapidly bear down on the dreaded age of 50, I seem to leak like a faucet. I don’t know when it started or when it’s gonna end. Hopefully never.

The tears that I cry can best be described thusly and the source is almost always the same. It happens in an instant and before I know it, all the cylinders are pumping full blast. It usually happens in private, when no when else is around and the house is quiet and I seem to have the world to myself. Everything is still except my mind, it races with thoughts that I can’t contain.

Did you ever eat a nice, fat, ripe peach? You take that first bite and juice sorta just explodes down your cheeks and dribbles off your lips. A couple of the drops might make their way down to shirt and leave the telltale stain. The taste in your mouth is somehow both bitter and sweet at the same time. I think my kid has an image of me as being some kinda “tough guy” with a soft side that’s rarely shown in public. Here’s what happened…

The other evening was her first soccer practice for a new team that she tried out for and made. Naturally she was a little nervous since these were all new kids and new coaches and the competition level has stepped up to a higher level. No more of that “everybody gets a trophy” and “everybody is the best” kinda stuff that happened when she was younger. Some folks have a problem with being competitive, I don’t but that’s probably another subject for another time.

Anyway, the practice was scheduled to last for about an hour and half. No problem, I could always run errands and drop in for a quick beer with the fella’s before I made my way back and that’s just what I did. The conversation at the bar, which is usually quite intriguing, was stale at best and had devolved into the subject of whether or not girls fart. I was outta there pretty quickly.

I got back to the practice field and watched about the last twenty minutes or so. My kid was doing ok but looked a little timid and out of place. It looked like she was afraid of going all out. This is not one of her traits. Rather than interrupt, I remained off in the distance where she couldn’t see me.

As practice ended, I walked over and asked her how things went. Naturally, I got the one word answer that most parents hear in their lifetime but inside they know that there’s more coming. “Good!”.

When we got to the car, I related what I had observed about her play and how she was acting on the field. I asked her if anything was wrong. Here’s what I got back.

”Well Dad, it WAS my first practice with a new team and I was a little nonplussed.”


I thought to myself, my nine year old had used the word “nonplussed? I kinda sorta smiled and changed the subject from soccer to vocabulary. Since this isn’t a word you hear everyday, I was amazed. Where in the world did you pick that up? Who told you what it meant? She told me she gets this magazine at her mom’s that has all kinds of new words to use and it just seemed like the right time to use it.

Later on in the evening, after she went to bed, I went to my porch to have a smoke and nurse a beer before I too turned in for the night. I thought to myself, “Nonplussed indeed.”

And that’s when the tears that I mentioned earlier came. There’s a little fountain of hope in my heart that’s always been there, only this time, I think I could really feel it.

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.