Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Learning | Nonplussed

My friend, Holly, posted on her Facebook status recently, asking her friends to list their least favorite words, and why. Apparently, she had read an article on a similar topic recently, and somebody said they couldn't stand to hear the word "moist."  

Mocha Caramel Pound Cake.
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Holly and I both think that's funny; we like the word moist. For many of us, it conjures up the thought of delicious, moist cake--because there was a certain brand of cake mix that claimed cakes turned out moister, if one used their mix.

It's easier for me to think of words I like, than those I don't, but I did think of one: nonplussed. I don't encounter it too often, but when I do, it's when I'm reading a book. I never hear people say it.  

Truthfully, one reason I dislike the word is because I have had trouble remembering what it's supposed to mean. The word nonplussed  seems to be used to describe a person's reaction to something they don't like. I had some vague idea it might be related to being angry or confused.

I looked it up on the Oxford Dictionary Online, before I posted the word in a comment under Holly's status.  Here's what the ODO says about it:
  • 1(of a person) surprised and confused so much that they are unsure how to react:he would be completely nonplussed and embarrassed at the idea
  • 2North American informal (of a person) not disconcerted; unperturbed.

Well! No wonder I was confused. Those two meanings seem to oppose each other.  I must be reading it in different contexts, so that it means different things. 

The other reason I dislike the word is because it doesn't sound like what it means. The morpheme "plus" made me think of arithmetic--which, come to think of it, was not my favorite subject in school.  I read about the etymology of nonplus; it comes from Latin, meaning "no more." That actually  makes sense, if we consider it as meaning no more can or should be said, it especially sounds like the first meaning listed in the ODO. 

I suppose you might say that the ODO helped me to overcome my dislike of nonplussed. After reading so much about the term, I think I will not be nonplussed when I come across the word in a book.

If you want to read a children's book that revels in the enjoyment of words, consider requesting James Thurber's The Wonderful O through Link+. 

It's about the island of Ooroo, where the letter O is banished.  As one would expect, this causes great difficulties in communication.  

For instance, schoolchildren are supposed to be learning the following at school: "Mist is always moist, but what is moist isn't always mist." Because of the ban on the letter O, that becomes "Mist is always mist, but what is mist isn't always mist."


  1. When I was in high school a friend and I had a whole list of what we called "pleasant words." Pleasant was not a compliment in this case. "Pleasant words" are words we considered kind of wishy-washy. Moist was on that list.

  2. I'm with you on the word nonplussed. I'd much rather be unimpressed. And, I dislike being so confused about things that I don't know how to respond so much that I'd rather admit it directly with a heartfelt "I'm so confused!" I mean, so what if that's 3 words instead of one! I've never been afraid of using plenty of words to get my point across anyway. :-)