READERS WRITE.

A NOTE FROM a certain Mr. Smithington, Esq.:

Dear Dr.,

The word “nonplussed” means surprised or confused. An emotional iconograph conveying such an expression would look as such, “:O”. Using the term, “nonplussed” as a neologism referring to one who is unimpressed—as I suppose was the emotion you were attempting to convey with your “emoticon” consisting of merely a colon punctuation mark—is a habit the more vulgar classes are attempting to impose on us and should be discouraged.

With kindest regards,
S

Our correspondent is quite right in condemning the neologism. Dr. Boli was not aware that anyone was using the term that way until this comment sent him out to do some research on the omniscient Internet. He does not condemn all development in language: he would be sorry to see English limited to the vocabulary and style of Alfred the Great, however laudable his works may be in their own right. But the misuse of “nonplussed” threatens to deprive us of a useful expression for which there is no close equivalent.

The root sense of “nonplussed” is “unable to go further.” It is the utterly puzzling sensation of reaching the limit of one’s leash without having previously known that one was collared. It is different from surprise, which is a kind of shock produced by something marvelous or unexpected, and which would fittingly be represented by an expression of open-mouthed wonder. To be nonplussed is to have the sudden realization that one simply doesn’t know what to think or do about something. It is the blank and despairing feeling that what had up to this moment seemed comprehensible really makes no sense at all.

If he were addicted to the use of emoticons, Dr. Boli would prefer to represent the state of being unimpressed thus:  : ¹

Published in: on October 2, 2010 at 8:51 am  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Regrettably this neologism’s boat has left the harbor. The current use of “nonplussed” as synonymous with “unimpressed” or “unaffected” is pretty standard and solidly established. As lover of great words, I would like to feel nonplussed about this loss in the older sense of the word. Unfortunately I am only nonplussed in the newer sense of the word. Our only consolation is that there are, perhaps, five people in the whole world that would use this word in any sense and they will be dead soon enough, putting the debate to rest with them.

  2. I’m bemused as to why you think there is no rough equivalent to nonplussed.

    I love those two words because they are the two most common “use a big word whose definition I don’t actually know” words and also mean roughly the same thing, albeit with different connotation.


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