I'm nonplussed, maybe

-- The Nation,

Dec. 31, 2001

OK, so that last example may actually have meant to imply bewilderment, because, sadly, by 1989, Ronald Reagan was nonplussed by many things.

Is it possible that the real "nonplussed" has become a casualty of its own vernacular groundswell? Maybe it's fed up with all that puzzlement and ready to settle down into a quiet, unfazed life? Or, like a person who's born one gender but is completely convinced that he's really the other, perhaps "nonplussed" is simply transitioning into its authentic self.

I posed some of these possibilities to Mark Liberman, a linguistics professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the founder of a linguistics blog called Language Log. Liberman must have found the "nonplussed" conundrum particularly compelling, because after agreeing to respond to my questions by e-mail, he instead answered them in the form of a post on his blog. He cautions against the term "misuse," which he considers "loaded," and points out that dictionary definitions can evolve markedly over time.

The word "silly," for example, went through several definitions between 1200 and 1600 as per the Oxford English Dictionary, Liberman says. Originally meaning "happy or blissful," it took on a sequence of definitions ranging from "spiritually blessed" to "pious" to "innocent" to "pitiable" to "insignificant" to "feeble" to "crazy" to, finally, "foolish or simple."

As for "nonplussed," Liberman notes that the "unfazed" meaning, which he calls the "new meaning," has already made it into the online dictionary Encarta, which lists "cool and collected; calm and unperturbed" as the second definition (right under "confused").

In other words, it's dictionary survival of the fittest at work; may the best definition win, or at least the one that triumphs through proliferation. Consider "peruse," which technically means "to read with thoroughness and care" but in today's parlance has come to mean "pretending to skim magazines while waiting for someone you met on the Internet to meet you at the bookstore." It's a little perverse that one thing can morph into something like its opposite, but it would mean "nonplussed" isn't a victim of plebian misappropriation but, rather, an agent of change.

As it turns out, it is popular among those who see themselves as such. It so happens that in a People magazine interview last month, presidential hopeful Barack Obama commented on his daughters' response to media scrutiny by saying "I've been really happy by how nonplussed they've been by the whole thing."

Et tu, Obama? It seems so.

On the other hand, Liberman noticed two Web comments about the story that pretty much say it all.

Comment One: "Wow, our possible president using a word like 'nonplussed.' What a welcome change from Dubya and McCain."

Comment Two: "See, Barack Obama is not a snob. Like most people who would ever use the word "nonplussed" ... he uses it incorrectly. ... Take that, Harvard!"