When A Plus Is A Minus

The real meaning of the word "nonplussed"

Last week, some people who read here that “bemused” doesn’t mean “wryly amused” may have been “nonplussed.”

“Nonplussed” is another word that looks like something it’s not.

Here are two passages from the same publication within three days of one another, each using “nonplussed” in ways that could be different. Or not. (No publication names, but think Australian media magnate.)

“At 93, Howard Waag has cause to be concerned – but also to be nonplussed, age and experience having provided him with perspective.”

Reading the context clues, this seems to mean that Waag has lots of perspective, so despite the circumstances concerning him, he’s sanguine, or cheerfully optimistic. “Nonplussed” is being used to mean “not bothered” or “unfazed,” in a positive sense.

Here’s the second passage:

“We meet landowner Neel Halder, who has accepted the loss of his estates to Burnham but finds his hauteur more difficult to surrender; and the ship’s second mate, Zachary Reid, a half-black American who is nonplussed to be carrying out the will of racist Englishmen.”

In that passage, from a book review, the context clues (perhaps from olden days) are less obvious. Reid might be “not bothered,” or “unfazed.” Or he could be “puzzled” or “bewildered” at the position he’s in, or outraged. Or he could find the situation pretty amusing, or ironic. (Let’s save that one for another day.)

Enough of the suspense. Only if Reid is “puzzled” or “bewildered” would he be “nonplussed.”

“Nonplussed” came into English directly from the Latin “non plus,” meaning “no more.” But other languages offer better clues: In French “nonplussed” is “perplexe” and in Spanish it’s “perplejo.”

Are you more or less “nonplussed” to learn that?

Even though “nonplussed” is often used to mean “not bothered,” no dictionary sanctions that use—yet. Instead, they all stick to the traditional definition: “Nonplussed” means to be “perplexed,” or “puzzled,” or “bewildered.” Some dictionaries take it a step further, introducing the concept that someone “nonplussed” is so puzzled as to be unable to speak. (Note that some dictionaries spell it “nonplused,” but Webster’s’ New World College Dictionary, the journalistic standard, adds the second “s.”)

It’s easy to see where the confusion comes from. English speakers see “non” and immediately think “not.” But if you think about it as “not plussed,” it must be a “minus,” or a negative thought. If that helps you be less “nonplussed,” that’s a plus.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.