Look, I love words a lot — look at my etymology tag for proof! — but what I like about them on a basic level is that they help us humans communicate with each other. If I say “cat” we’re on the same page of what I am talking about and that is good.
But this is no longer the case with “nonplussed” and I think we should all agree to stop using it because it’s totally confusing.
The definition of nonplussed is “surprised and confused so much that they are unsure how to react.” Due to its negative prefix (“non-“) it has more recently been used to mean the exact opposite, i.e. “unsurprised.” My beef with the word (’cause we’ve totally got beef now) is that it’s hard to know if or when people are using it correctly and this total lack of clarity is the opposite of good communication (which is what I am all about).
As a comparison point, the annoying habit people have picked up of using “literally” when they mean “figuratively” is dumb, lazy and incorrect, but it’s obvious that when someone says, “I literally died of embarrassment” that they aren’t actually dead and were, instead, severely shamed in public.
Two podcast interviews I heard recently brought this to my attention. One was with Kevin Spacey, who was described on the BBC’s Film Programme as “nonplussed” when posed a question, and it left me baffled. Spacey has such a smug, sarcastic speech pattern anyway that it was hard to tell just by listening if he was really shocked, just faking it, or if the interviewer was being ironic. The second was with Noah Hawley, the writer of FX’s very enjoyable FARGO TV show, who I am fairly certain used the word completely wrong. (The context was that Midwesterners are “nonplussed” by the harshness of the winters, which they’re totally not.) This confusion on Hawley’s part led to me being disappointed as I thought the show was generally well done but am now troubled that a professional writer doesn’t have a grasp on the language he’s working in.
So, out with nonplussed. Let’s just get rid of it. Literally.