Root words without the negative prefix

Root words without the negative prefix

I’ve never been plussed. And, according to dictionaries, neither have you. There’s no such word, say Merriam-Webster, Webster’s New World, American Heritage and, I’m sure, many others. My personal experience confirms this. Never have I heard anyone say, “Gee, Bob sure was plussed by the company’s latest earnings report.”

That’s contrary to what would seem a reasonable assumption: If you can be nonplussed, when you’re not that, you must be plussed. But no. No plussed for you.

We see this from time to time in English. A word starts with a negative prefix like “non” or “dis,” yet the root word can’t stand alone without the prefix. You can’t just chop off the first syllable to un-negate it. If you could, people would walk around in a near constant state of being gruntled, punctuated by short bursts of acting chalant.

But “nonplussed” isn’t what it appears. I’ll let Benjamin Dreyer, Penguin Random House copy chief and author of the best-selling “Dreyer’s English,” explain: “To be nonplussed is to be confused, startled, at a loss for words,” he writes. “Lately, the word has devolved into a synonym for relaxed, cool as a cucumber, chill, and that’s a problem.”

Regular readers know that this is the point in the column where I say that the standards for editors are higher than the standards for everyone else and that dictionaries allow you to do the thing that editors call a problem. Except in this case, they don’t. Merriam-Webster does not recognize these “relaxed” and “cool as a cucumber” definitions. So for now Dreyer’s rule applies to all of us.

But that may well change. Even Merriam-Webster has hinted that change could be on the horizon.

“There’s a new sense of nonplussed that people have been using, and … well, we’d just like to give you fair warning in case our descriptivist nature causes us to take action,” Merriam’s editors wrote in a blog post on the dictionary’s website. After more than 300 years of people using nonplussed to mean “at a loss for words,” in the early 20th century “some people began to use nonplus to mean ‘unruffled, unconcerned,’ and ever since then the word just hasn’t been the same.”

The blog post cites an example from a 1948 article in Iowa’s Mason City Globe-Gazette: “The onlooker at the right appears nonplussed at the game the posters offer, but then — she’s only a mannequin.”

In other words, people started using a word that meant gobsmacked to mean, well, un-gobsmacked.

Experts believe this has to do with the “non” part of “nonplussed.” People assumed the “non” meant “not” and, from there, figured the “plussed” part must mean “ruffled” or “flummoxed” or “fazed.”

None of that is true. In Latin, “non plus” means “no more.” As in “I can’t handle any more” or “Make it stop.” (Noticed how ruffled, flummoxed and fazed you would have to be to need that term.) The “non” part isn’t quite the same as our English prefix “non,” so it’s a mistake to assume “nonplussed” means “not” plus whatever “plussed” might mean.

The 16th century English speakers who first adopted “nonplus” understood this. They used it as a noun meaning “quandary.” A century or so later, English speakers had decided it was verb, with the slightly morphed meaning of “to cause to be at a loss as to what to say, think, or do.”

The past participle, nonplussed, started being used as an adjective, which is standard and evidenced by countless participial modifiers, as in “painted fence,” “marked man” and “beloved character.”

And so “nonplussed” went on in the English language for about 300 years until the early 20th century, when the “unfazed” and “unruffled” senses started to appear. But if you want an official greenlight to use them, you might have to wait a few more decades.

— June Casagrande is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

COMMENTS