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September 18, 2017

My correspondent and old friend Jams O’Donnell has alerted me to a growing new use of the word nonplussed. In standard British English if you’re nonplussed you are baffled, confused, taken aback; you don’t know how to react. It comes from the French non plus, meaning no more (the idea being that no more can be said, I suppose). In American English, however, it has acquired the sense of “not bothered”. Jams sent me an article from the Times about a British chap in New York going to see a therapist, which contained the sentence: “I kept trying to tell him long stories about my adolescent struggles with God, girls and Oreo addiction, but he seemed nonplussed.” Given the context – which is about how the therapist didn’t seem to warm to him or take an interest in him – it’s clear that the word here means unbothered, rather than taken aback. And it’s used by a British journalist, so the new usage has now jumped the nationality barrier.

Maybe the change has occurred because of the slight resemblance to nonchalant. (I’ve noticed that words with similar sounds often end up converging in meaning: witness the convergence of ironic and laconic, for instance, or fortunate and fortuitous.) I don’t like it, anyway. An unusual word with a precise meaning and a pleasing etymology is being lost, in favour of a synonym for “not bothered”, which we didn’t need. But it’s probably irresistible now. American usage always prevails; there are five times as many of them as there are of us, and we watch, read and listen to far more American cultural products than they do British ones. So this complaint won’t do any good, but I do feel like complaining.

P.S. May I bring to your attention my comic fantasy YA novel The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers – here is the link:  

Go there and you will see a neat little 2-minute video of me explaining why the time for this novel has come! And if you support it you will get your name in the back and an invitation to the launch party.

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One Comment
  1. Simon Carter permalink

    I wasn’t aware of this change in meaning and doubt I’d have picked up on it from context; in the example quoted I’d have assumed the therapist didn’t understand. Perhaps we should revert to using flummoxed.

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