Making the World More Understandable
Words That Don’t Work: Nonplus

Words That Don’t Work: Nonplus

I believe that a person with a basic understanding of the language ought to be able to understand content published for the general population – even if they encounter a word they haven’t seen before. Obviously, text books, scientific articles, philosophical debates, and the such are likely to contain words that will send the reader to a dictionary – I’m talking about mass market reading material here.

Several years ago, I started running across a word that just didn’t fit for me. While it came into being several centuries ago, it seems to have recently surged in popularity amongst the authors that I read. The word nonplus (and its adjective form, nonplussed) strikes me as the epitome (a word I love) of unclear communication.

So that we are all in the same place, let’s use the example sentence:

Nonplussed by the news that her sister was now her brother, Sylvia turned around and walked away.

When I’m reading and come across an unfamiliar word, I’m likely to skip over it because I understand what the sentence is saying if not all the actual words. If that doesn’t work, or if the word keeps popping up, then I tend to look at the word itself. I have more than a basic understanding of the language, I’m reading a mass market publication, I can figure out the word.

Nonplus, in my mind that means negative. Non for Not, Plus for Positive, not positive = negative. Contextually, that never worked.

Emoticon Bored
To me, this is what “nonplussed” looks like.

OK, so let’s add context. Authors use nonplussed when describing someone’s reaction to something. So, if literally the word ought to mean “negative,” then I think of poor or sedate reactions; words like nonchalant, indifferent, and composed come to mind.

With all that in mind, I read the example sentence as Sylvia always knew her sister had gender issues, so of course she (now he) had the surgery.

Well, I’m wrong. I know I’m wrong, but that’s still my first take.

Let’s say that from our reading, we know that Sylvia is actually a shrew with homophobic tendencies, my instinctual read does not work.

I finally had to look up the word. Imagine my shock and confusion when I read that nonplussed means surprised.

Surprise is not a negative or sedate reaction. And, “nonplussed” is not active enough for unpleasant surprises.

Writing this, I rechecked three online dictionaries for nonplus, their results:

Any of these faces express how Sylvia might feel - none of them would I call "nonplussed."
Any of these faces express how Sylvia might feel – none of them would I call “nonplussed.”

Nope, none of them work for me. Surprise, confuse, baffle, perplex, confound, dumbfound, befuddle, these words all work for what Sylvia actually felt when she learned about her sister’s sexual re-assignment surgery. I would even accept “plussed” (not actually a word). At least that implies some of the energy necessary to be so shocked as to become speechless.

What other words mean the opposite of what they sound like they mean? Nothing comes to mind; I’m open to suggestions.

-Lorrie Nicoles

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