6 06 2008

Nonplussed is an odd word. I don’t think anyone ever uses that word in an ordinary conversation. “My, you were  nonplussed when Joe told us he slaughters his own chickens.” Nope, doesn’t happen. Besides, it’s turning into a self-antonym. It’s supposed to mean “surprised and confused.” (according to the dictionary folks)
Joseph was nonplussed to discover that Lucy was his date, not the plumber come to repair the upstairs toilet, especially since she only told him after she had finished the job.
But it seems that people are now using it to mean “not disconcerted; unperturbed”
Well, that’s disconcerting!

Here are two definitions, the first from 

and the second from Unabridged (v 1.1)Cite This SourceShare This

non·plus  // <![CDATA[
 Audio Help   [non-pluhs, non-pluhs] Pronunciation KeyShow IPA Pronunciation verb, -plussed or -plused, -plus·sing or -plus·ing, noun
–verb (used with object)
1. to render utterly perplexed; puzzle completely.


2. a state of utter perplexity.

[Origin: 1575–85; (n.) < L nōn plūs lit., not more, no further, i.e., a state in which nothing more can be done]
—Synonyms 1. perplex, confuse, confound, disconcert.



  • adjective 1 surprised and confused. 2 N. Amer. informal unperturbed.

  — USAGE In standard English nonplussed means ‘surprised and confused’. A new meaning, ‘not disconcerted; unperturbed’, has developed recently in North American English, probably on the assumption that the prefix non- must have a negative meaning; this is not yet accepted as standard usage.

  — ORIGIN from Latin non plus ‘not more’.
p.s. Am I the only one who wishes he could go back to vocabulary lessons in school and have fun writing those descriptive sentences? I hated it back then, but now I think it would cool to make a little story out of them.

Blogroll: TED and the Dictionary Evangelist

26 01 2008

TED claims to have “ideas worth sharing” and is the best TV alternative on the internet. Some of the worlds most effective and impressive people show up to give short talks. The attendees are as much an attraction as the speakers — and the speakers are none too shabby — this year the talks will be “based on the theme “The Big Questions” and feature Al Gore, Craig Venter, Amy Tan, Karen Armstrong, Yves Behar, Robert Ballard, Bob Geldof, Walter Isaacson, Isaac Mizrahi, Ben Zander and 40 more of the world’s most insightful and inspiring speakers.” Given that, is it any big surprise that a main hall pass is being auctioned off on e-bay going for $33,535?

Anyone who has ever thought that numbers were hard to make interesting should watch these 2 talks by Hans Rosling – or if you just want to understand more about how the world is going — are things slithering down a sewer or getting better? And how are they ending up the way they are?

 Hans Rosling shows the best stats you’ve ever seen

 Hans Rosling reveals new insights on poverty

If numbers (even incredibly vibrant and important ones) aren’t your thing, just go to and pick any of the amazing videos — short talks by people who are actually solving and understanding the real problems of the world. Watch enough and you’ll realize that they are all true, even when contradictory. Watch them all and you won’t be the same person.

 One video that I watched, by Erin McKean, about dictionaries, is described thusly:

Is the beloved paper dictionary doomed to extinction? When does a made-up word become real? And could you use “synecdochical” in a sentence, please? In this infectiously exuberant talk, leading lexicographer Erin McKeanlooks at the many ways in which today’s print dictionary is poised for transformation in this internet era.

Her blog, which I only read occasionally, is here: Here’s an excerpt from a recent posting, to give you the flavor:

My take (and yes, I know it’s self-serving, in that I make dictionaries) is that, in belletristic writing, when presented with an otherwise-equal choice between a fun, unusual word, and a boring, commonplace word, you should always choose the unusual one. Why deny your readers the “aha!” moment of finding a perfectly apt, elegantly descriptive word?

(Of course, I also think “when in doubt, wear orange,” so you perhaps should take this with a grain of salt.)

Literary writing is a way to introduce readers not just to facts and ideas and emotions but to beautiful words: imagine writing a guidebook to a place that left out the best restaurants because they weren’t on the subway line … if something is worthwhile, people will find a way to get there. If a word is perfect, people will figure it out.

I am NOT suggesting that technical or workaday writing should be full of fifty-cent words; “This way to the egress” is a scam, not an invitation to learning. (Or, at least, not an invitation to learning that is received gratefully!) But literature, long-form journalism, and essay writing allow for more lexical scope, and you should take advantage of it, to the best of your ability. Why not?