“What are you interested in? Games and all that?”
“Well—video games. Like Age of Conquest? Yakuza Freakout?”
He seemed nonplussed. “What about school, then? Favorite subjects?”
In this conversation between the narrator, Theo, and his older friend, Hobie, from Donna Tartt’s brilliant new novel, The Goldfinch, what does the word nonplussed mean about Hobie? It’s one of those words often used to mean precisely the opposite of its dictionary definition. It derives from Latin “non plus”—meaning “no more”—and connotes “perplexed,” “befuddled.” Imagine a Roman throwing up his arms in frustration. “Don’t lob any more information at me!” he protests. “I can’t fathom anything else.” But people who use the word to mean “unfazed” read the “non” to signify “not” and assume that “plussed” means something like “ruffled.” In the example above, from Tartt’s book, her intention is ambiguous. It could go either way. A few pages later, however, she clarifies her usage. When Theo challenges his school counselor, Mrs. Swanson, with a “voice that came out sounding far too nasty,” she appears “nonplussed.” She stumbles as she responds to Theo. In this instance, Tartt seems unequivocally to say that Mrs. Swanson is rattled. Surely Tartt has the same meaning in mind in the earlier passage.
We would expect a formidable writer like Tartt to know the difference, but nonplussed is so often turned inside out that its definition is verging on complete transformation through popular, widespread misuse. To try stopping this process of redefinition is as futile as attempting to hold the wind; it’s part of the natural ebb and flow of linguistic change. But as evinced in the above example, where the context doesn’t immediately reveal the author’s intent, it causes considerable confusion to the reader who knows both the word’s origins and its vulnerability to being used as its own antonym. Which of the two does the author mean?
So it is in the case of the word enervate, as well. Here too, I believe, the matter of clarity is significant enough to warrant reflection. If I use the word to mean “energize”—as in, “the work enervated me”—then the person who knows that the word means “to sap energy from” may understand me to be saying exactly the opposite of what I think I’m saying. The word fulsome poses a similar challenge. When a friend tells me she appreciates my “fulsome” explanation of how to cultivate peonies, I wonder just how I’ve been “offensively flattering or insincere” about flowers, which, according to The American Heritage Dictionary, is the word’s definition. My friend has meant “full” in the positive sense, but as long ago as the early fifteenth century, the word began acquiring negative connotations, as when Shakespeare’s Olivia, a comic heroine in Twelfth Night, spurns her unwanted suitor, Orsino, by telling him that his wooing is “as fat and fulsome to mine ear / As howling after music.” Put bluntly, Orsino disgusts her. (The fascinating etymology of the word fat is another matter for another day.)
All of these instances share the irreducible and insoluble tension between the instability of language, which is constantly evolving, and the stability required if language is to fulfill its purpose of communicating. Constantly aware of the tension, I find myself jostled between a laissez-faire attitude toward the natural flux of a word’s meaning and a hyper-awareness that words mean something definite and unchanging. Maybe I’ve never gotten over the embarrassment I felt when, as a naïve freshman in my first college lit class, my professor asked me what I thought of a comment one of my classmates had made. Intending to compliment the student, but ignorant of the word’s meaning, I said I was “appalled.” I thought it meant its opposite . . . something like “impressed.” I’ve never stopped wishing I’d gotten it right.