The other day, one of our regulars wondered that if nonplussed means to be perplexed, what might it mean to be “plussed”? Make that your next word, she said. Well, OK…and it turns out, once you start snooping around, that lots of other people have asked questions about this odd little word. Everyone gets the “non” part, and those acquainted with French notice the “plus” part and are led to the not-unreasonable idea that nonplussed is some kind of channel-hopper from France. Not exactly so, as it turns out. The French do have non (no) and plus (more), but they have never combined them to mean being perplexed. For those who simply must know, the French will indeed use “non plus”, but in an entirely different way – as in “moi non plus” (me neither, neither do I); “ça non plus” (not his either). And for the obsessively insistent…if you were going to really dig, there is another speculative 16th century French connection mentioned by the Oxford English Dictionary – “mettre à nonplus” (bring to a state where nothing more can be done/said). The objection to this is that, back in its day, the English might use this (the Francophile showoffs among them, perhaps) but the French did not. Once again, the French had a different phrase for that meaning – réduire à quia – which in any case no modern Frenchman has ever heard. So the French connection is close, but no cigar! The consensus is that the English nonplus came directly from Latin non plus, meaning “no more”, and signifying in English “no more, no further, nothing more to be done, perplexed”. How did this come about?….um…education in 16th century England was largely in Latin…probably that’s as close as sleuthing will get you. It’s original use was as a noun – as in I am brought to a nonplus (a state of no further, of perplexity). We Americans prefer it shorter and sweeter as an adjective – so we say I am nonplussed. So there you have it.
Oh, but there’s more. There’s an annoying part, for those of us who resist word misuse weaseling its way into common currency. Folks who have heard nonplussed in context but never actually checked the dictionary have taken a not entirely illogical but nonetheless wrong direction (wrong, I say!)…that one is at a standstill because of being unaffected and cool as a cucumber, instead of cut off at every turn, shocked into immobility. In short, arriving at the exact opposite of the meaning of the word. Yes, yes, I know, language changes; see my earlier post about fun, which shape-shifted over centuries from meaning a hoax to meaning light pleasure. Well, that damage was long done by the time I came along; I never knew fun as hoax and so never mourned it. But benign ignorance might flip nonplussed from heads to tails right under my nose, and I don’t like it! Now that you know, be on guard!
And now the funnest part. Here’s a truly obsolete candidate for the same meaning, and funnily enough it does come from the French. Old French (13th century) gravele, meaning a sandy beach, hopping over to Middle English gravel, where to be graveled or brought to a gravel came to also mean “run aground, beached, stranded, brought to a standstill, perplexed”. Alas, gravel lost place to upscale fancypants Latin nonplus, and is found no more (except deeeeep on the edges of internet search engines). Another old synonym that apparently is just too entertaining to be given up is flummox. It’s British for sure, but no one knows exactly from what tongue…they say “some forgotten British dialect.” from probably around Herefordshire, Gloucestershire, Sheffield. I can’t help thinking beyond the Mists of Avalon to some Druid farmer being “flummoxed” by a mishap in the field. Who does not love flummoxed? Having a bit of a peasant sensibility, I tend to use it more than nonplus anyway. I suppose if nonplussed ever does get flipped onto its backside, I will still be happily consoled with flummoxed.
Etymological illuminations brought to you by Jane