Nonplussed = unfazed?

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Tue Nov 7 03:41:51 UTC 2000

>In today's Word Spy, I pointed out that reporter Gina Kolata of The New York
>Times uses the word "nonplussed" incorrectly in the following citation:
>"Yet he was nonplussed by the number of attacks on that single day last
>week. 'I think it's fairly typical,' he said."
>Clearly she's using it here to mean "unfazed" and I pointed out that
>although this is a common error, the correct meaning is "bewildered; at a
>loss." One subscriber has taken me to task on this. Calling me a
>"prescriptivist" (ouch!), he said that the "unfazed" meaning is now
>descriptive of actual usage, particularly in American English. None of my
>dictionaries mention (much less sanction) this usage. I know it's a common
>error, but I still insist that it's an error. Is usage winning this battle?

We had a discussion on this exactly two years ago.  Since I'm not
sure what the current searchability status of the archive is, I copy
this discussion below.

Date:         Fri, 6 Nov 1998 13:50:56 -0500
Sender: American Dialect Society <ADS-L at UGA.CC.UGA.EDU>
From: Larry Horn <laurence.horn at YALE.EDU>
Subject:      two-stage reanalysis ('nonplussed')

A recent subhead (10/26/98) in the Yale Daily News read as follows:

         Citing frequent violence as the reason,
         most students remained unpulsed by
         Friday's shootout

Now, of course, "unpulsed" is a neologism; unsurprisingly, nary a cite on
Nexis, and I doubt it will catch on.  (Let's all try to control our
But what its use in this context presupposes, as some of my colleagues here
pointed out, is a prior reanalysis of "nonplussed" (presumably, the source
for this mishearing) as meaning 'unfazed' or 'evincing indifference'.  The
standard and only official meaning of "nonplussed"--as listed in every
dictionary I checked--is 'puzzled, bewildered, baffled', not 'indifferent'
or 'unfazed'.  (Similarly for the verb, "to nonplus".) But for me, the
latter meaning is if anything the more salient of the two.  One of my
colleagues (older than me--and I'm 53--and like me originally from NYC)
shares my lexical entry, but my other colleagues were, shall we say,
totally nonplussed by it.  (In their sense, not mine.)
         Are any of you familiar with this reanalysis, or any account of it?
It would interesting to know if there's any regional dimension; it
certainly doesn't SEEM like a feature of New York City English--although
one might argue that New Yorkers learn early on to show a poker face when
baffled or puzzled, so it's easy to make up a story justifying the meaning

Date:         Fri, 6 Nov 1998 10:59:18 -0800
Sender: American Dialect Society <ADS-L at UGA.CC.UGA.EDU>
From: "A. Maberry" <maberry at U.WASHINGTON.EDU>
Subject:      Re: two-stage reanalysis ('nonplussed')

I see/hear it used in the sense of "unfazed" much more frequently than
"bewildered"--so much so that if I did hear it in a context which had to
mean "bewildered", I would probably go look it up in a dictionary.

maberry at
Date:         Fri, 6 Nov 1998 14:43:50 -0600
Sender: American Dialect Society <ADS-L at UGA.CC.UGA.EDU>
From: Jessie Emerson <jessie at SIRSI.COM>
Subject:      Re: two-stage reanalysis ('nonplussed')

Bewildered, baffled are the only meanings I've ever known for nonplussed.
I would never think it meant indifferent.

Jessie (Alabama)
Date:         Fri, 6 Nov 1998 14:11:45 -0500
Sender: American Dialect Society <ADS-L at UGA.CC.UGA.EDU>
From: Grant Barrett <gbarrett at>
Subject:      Re: two-stage reanalysis ('nonplussed')

I seem to have the two apparently incompatible meanings for
nonplussed in my head, and didn't realize it until you brought it up.
The reason I say "apparently," however, is that non-plussed always
seemed to evoke more an idea of a physical state of a person rather
than an emotional one.
A person who is nonplussed (confused, bewildered) has exactly same
blank look (by my definition) as a person who is nonplussed (unfazed,
evincing indifference).
Grant Barrett
gbarrett at

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