Wednesday, July 13, 2011

I'm nonplussed (In my own special way)

Today instead of filling my timesheet like a good little employee, I was thinking about the evolution of languages. They do that, you know—change. That's why we have a few dozen Romance languages, rather than just Latin. Part of me – the liberal part that loves words – is thrilled by this process. I love new words. English has more words than pretty much any other language on earth, but that's not enough! When you don't have a word to say what you mean, make up a new one, or borrow from another language! One can never have too many words! The more the merrier! The other part of me  – the uptight part that loves grammar – is horrified. We have rules for a reason! They lose all their meaning when you keep changing them! It is never going to be OK to say "Billy and me went to the movies." Never!

Today the liberal part of me (that also happily seizes on every possible distraction) succumbed to a sudden urge to find out the origins of the word "nonplussed."

Ever since I saw this word used in one of my teen magazines, I had believed, based on the context of that first encounter, that it meant something along the lines of "dismayed." After all, if you are non-plussed,  you must not be having a positive experience. I always thought this was a clever word to express disappointment, but I didn't use it very often—and fortunately, because I was wrong. My search on the etymology of "nonplussed" revealed that its meaning is closer to "completely confused or perplexed." ("Non plus" is essentially a Latin phrase meaning "no further." Thus, someone who is so confused that they can go no further in their line of thought is nonplussed.)

Well, needless to say, I was "dismayed." The actual definition of this choice word is so much less commonsensical (that's a real word, by the way) than my interpretation of it. What's worse, my research revealed that in common usage, "nonplussed" is increasingly used to mean "impassive" or "unaffected"—meanings that are not only decidedly non-commonsensical (based on the root words which are familiar to everyone) but are completely contrary to the word's original meaning! This is the kind of language mutation that makes the uptight part of me that loves grammar cringe in horror.

So readers, I implore you! Even though it doesn't mean exactly what I'd like it to mean, don't allow "nonplussed" to be poisoned at the hands of the ignorant! Fight back! Use it in its proper form at every opportunity!

While we're on the subject of defending our language's honor, here's a quick aside (that will probably stretch out into a long digression as per my typical M.O.). While a draft of this post was patiently waiting in the wings, I received an email from my dad with a comment that I "write so often about grammar" and a link to this article about the writing industry's attack on the serial comma (the one that goes before the "and" that marks the last item in a list). I myself am a fan of the serial comma, for much the same reasons as the article's author is, and feel that (if you are not too worn out from campaigning for the proper usage of "nonplussed") you should take some time to educate other users of English in its merits.

Interestingly, I found some links at the bottom of the article to other works by someone calling herself "Grammar Girl." I'm fond of referring to myself as "Grammar Girl," but since the name is already taken, I guess I'll have to find a more creative title. Language Lady? Eh, I'll keep thinking.