Nonplussed about "nonplussed"

When it comes to grammar and usage, I’m generally non-nonplussable. I’ve been studying this stuff a long time. So when a friend or acquaintance asks me about a word, I usually have something intelligent to say.

But all that went out the window recently when, at a small gathering of friends, I was asked about “nonplussed.” Everyone else at the table had an opinion on the subject. The consensus was that people tend to use “nonplussed” to mean the opposite of what it really means. “Right, June? What say you, June?”

To which I said me — nothing. I had a fuzzy recollection of once being aware of how this word worked. But for the life of me, I couldn’t remember what the controversy was — or even the definition.
Clearly, it was time for a refresher on “nonplussed.”

The verb “nonplus,” means to perplex or baffle. But you don’t hear it much as a verb. People don’t often say, “Yo, don’t nonplus me, dude.” They could, but they don’t.

Mostly, you hear it in sentences like “He was nonplussed,” in which it’s a verb participle being used as an adjective. Using past-tense verbs as adjectives is standard, by the way. Think: “broken heart,” “painted fence,” “canceled flight,” “known quantity” and “waxed floor.”

“Nonplussed” can be spelled with one S or two, but the double-S form seems to be preferred by dictionaries.

As a noun, “nonplus” means a state of perplexity or a quandary. But this, too, is rare. You don’t often hear “The math questions on the test really threw me into a nonplus.”

In fact, this is how “nonplus” first entered the English language in the 16th century: as a noun meaning “quandary,” which was picked up from the Latin “non plus,” which means “no more.” Here’s an example from 1593 cited by Merriam-Webster. “I am brought to a nonplus, O Lorde what shall I saie?”

It took another century or so before “nonplus” evolved into a verb meaning “to cause to be at a loss as to what to say, think, or do,” which is basically what it means today.

But recently, "nonplussed" has become controversial, which I explore in my recent column.

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