When They Found Out What These Words Are Supposed To Mean, He Was Bemused But She Was Nonplussed!
More often than we even tend to admit, we learn words by seeing them in context and figuring them out by what they look like they should mean, with an eye to what the context allows. This is how, for instance, internecine came to have a sense of ‘mutually destructive’: people saw inter and thought ‘between’, when in the original the inter was just an intensifier, sort of like how in English we can say through and through or up one side and down the other or right down or downright or…
But also more often than we like to admit, when we learn that a word has a traditional or original meaning that is different from how many people use it now, we like to use it as a weapon. See decimate for a sparkling example. “You idiot, don’t you know that decimate refers to a practice of killing one in ten? You use it like it means reducing to one tenth, you illiterate barbarian!”
I wouldn’t be surprised if you were bemused by the one and nonplussed by the other. I also wouldn’t be surprised if you were bemused by the one and nonplussed by the other.
Before you send me an email informing me that I’ve repeated myself: That was intentional. Both of those words have a common usage that comes from seeing them in context and guessing their meaning by appearance, and an official sense that has the authority of origins, tradition, and dictionaries behind it.
I can tell you that I was in my thirties and already had a PhD in a humanities discipline before I learned the official, dictionary-sanctified meaning of either of these words. And yes, I aced the verbal section of the Graduate Record Exam (they didn’t ask about either of these words, by the way). Up to that time I recognized bemused as be- (as in bedecked, bespectacled, begrudge, etc.) plus a syncopated amused, and I took nonplussed as the opposite of plussed, which – though I had not seen it in the wild – I took to mean ‘impressed’, so nonplussed was ‘unimpressed’.
A lot of people use them to mean ‘having become amused’ and ‘unimpressed’, I gotta tell you. Because obviously! And so often where they are used, even if used in the dictionary sense, the conjectural sense is not frankly contradicted by the context.
But let me tell you where they came from and then you’ll know why they mean what the dictionaries say they mean (and what authors who sip sherry while writing use them to mean).
The be in bemuse (the adjectival past participle of which is bemused) is indeed the be- prefix you expect. But muse a bit more on the root. Muse. What do you do when you muse? You don’t amuse; you ponder. You think; you are absorbed in thought. Well, when you are bemused, you are not just lost in thought, you are stupefied, intoxicated, befuddled. You are seized not by the muse of music or song or video games or whatever; you are pixie-led, off in la-la land. Imagine you are at a party and it is 2:18 AM and you’ve had one drink too many but also you made the mistake of joining some people outside for a joint, and now you’re sitting on the couch watching the everything around you happening and the music drives through your ears like downtown traffic and you’re sure that at some future point you’ll rejoin the world but right now you’re trapped in the Phantom Zone or the antimatter universe of Qward. Now take that state and plant it on you in the middle of a conversation at brunch on a patio on a bright sunny day and someone has just said something that stupefies you. You are bemused.
Nonplus was first of all a noun. OK, first of all in English it was a noun. If you speak French, you will know that non plus means ‘no more’ or a similar sense such as in moi non plus ‘me neither’. The nonplus of English, as of the late 1500s, is a state where no more can be said or done, a standstill. So, just as if you are top-hatted you are in a top hat, if you are nonplussed you are in a nonplus. You don’t know how to proceed. Imagine you’re at an art gallery reception and you’ve been chatting with someone for a half hour and you’ve been getting along well – they really like you and are really interested in your opinions and have insisted on buying you a couple of drinks – and then they pull out a book from their bag and ask you to autograph it and you realize they think you’re someone you certainly are not. Take the feeling you have for the first half second or so of that realization and drop that on you at any family gathering when your cousin who seems like a fun person has just stated an opinion that catches you off guard. You are nonplussed.
But if you use these words, your readers may think you mean something else. They may have the conjectural sense in mind. Or they may assume that you have the conjectural sense in mind and they know better. In many cases, using them may result in internecine arguments. I won’t tell you not to use them, but just be prepared for your readers to be bemused or nonplussed.