Nonplussed

American English is, of course, descended from original British English (English English?). That language, in turn, was descended from a whole host of other languages and pinned together in a patchwork quilt of defeated and absorbed peoples. For such a mish-mash language it really shouldn’t surprise me that the English spoken in the U.K. is different in some ways from the English spoken here in the colonies.

Even various regions of the United States have dialectical differences between them. For instance, in some places you might get a hero, in others a hoagie. In other places, like here for instance, you might just hungry thinking about sandwiches. Whether you order a soda, a pop, or a coke (not necessarily Coke, Pepsi will work, too), you’re still getting some bubbly stuff with far too much sweet, sweet sugar in it.

Food words I get. It makes sense that different parts of the country – and the world – have different types of food and different names for those foods. I live in New Mexico, so we’ve got a huge catalog of cultural food to draw from, but even some of those foods are different depending on where in the state you are. For instance, Gorditas are a completely different experience in Las Cruces from what you get in the northern parts of the state. The Gorditas you get from Taco Bell are even further from what everyone else makes.

But other words have also drifted from the mother tongue over the years. The one that really took me by surprise was “nonplussed.” I wrote a short story last month and had some friends from the other side of the pond beta read it and give me notes and one of the notes I got highlighted “nonplussed.” In the notes, she’d written, “Is that the right word. He’s perplexed?” My first thought was she must have misread it, but upon looking up the definition I found she was right.

Mostly.

In U.K. English, nonplussed means “surprised and confused so much that they are unsure how to react.” In informal U.S. English (the only kind I speak, see also: Bad English), nonplussed means “not disconcerted or unperturbed.”

Most of the time, when you’re dealing with regionalisms the meaning can be sussed out pretty easily. A book written in the U.K. will refer to boots and bonnets instead of hood and trunks. Someone from northern New Mexico reading about Gorditas might have a different vision in their head than someone from southern New Mexico, but it’s all food. Except the Gorditas from Taco Bell; I’m not sure those qualify as food. But when you come across a word that has a drastic enough difference in meaning even though it’s the same word in both languages, it can rock your world and completely change the intent of the sentence.

What gorditas might look like

By the way, this is the sentence I’m referring to.

“The good doctor looked completely nonplussed, like he knew he’d already gotten away with whatever crazy plan he’d concocted.”

So, if we accept the casual North American meaning of nonplussed, the sentence makes a lot more sense than using the U.K. English definition. Otherwise, the good doctor looked confused, even though he’d already won.

That was one of those notes you want to frame and hang on your wall just to remind you that words can, and often do, have drastically different meanings depending on where the reader is. It saved me some potential embarrassment if the story ever winds up in the U.K. In the end, I changed nonplussed to unconcerned and kept my fingers crossed.

They say good writing is supposed to excise regionalisms and, for the most part, I agree with that. Like all rules in writing, that one can be broken to add flavor and texture to a story. But sometimes regionalisms sneak up on you and you won’t even know they’re there until someone from the outside points and asks, “What’s up with this word, dog?” That’s why it pays to have friends from other countries.

Got any good regionalisms that snuck up on you?

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12 thoughts on “Nonplussed

  1. Although I think this is one instance in which the American version the word makes more sense. If how a word sounds should at least have some connection to its own meaning, nonplussed sounds less like perplexed and more like unperturbed. I have trouble using it in a sentence correctly because the real meaning of the word in connection with the sound leaves me nonplussed.

  2. Eric, probably the example that gets the best hilarity is this one. In this land of Oz (Australia) we love a summer footwear item that is cool for our feet. I believe you call them flip flops. We call them thongs, which, to those in your parts, refer to parts other than feet! I’d hate to be the ‘butt’ of the joke! Thanks for the laugh.

    1. We’re the same here in the States depending on where you are. My buddy in high school’s dad was from deep in Arkansas and used to say things like “Root hog or die, son.”

  3. One dangerous difference – a thong in the US = a flipflop in UK – those rubber open sandals where the big toe is one one side of the V-shaped strap. In UK a thing is a very skimpy pair of panties – ie underpants and not US pants.

  4. I’d never heard the word “nonplussed” when I was growing up, so my first experience with it was in one of the Harry Potter books . . . of course I looked it up and got the “confused” definition. It’s still a word that throws me off, though, since “non” at the beginning makes me think of something that’s “not” something else. Ah, language.

    Your pictures have me hungry for a real gordita (since I don’t think I’ve ever had an authentic one). I’m also laughing at the thong/flip flop issue, since we called them thongs when I was little. I ran across a single-frame comic a while back with two older ladies walking along the beach, one saying to the other, “I told you thongs would get us attention.” She had a flip flop stuck in her butt crack . . .

    1. I’m not sure where I picked up nonplussed, but I’ve been using it a while and always assumed it meant unconcerned because that’s how I’ve always heard it used. It was a bit of a shock to find out I was only partially using it correctly.

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