17 November 2019

Plussed (or Non)

Belie – An Ambidextrous Word

Last week I found myself using ‘belie’ in a story. A check for nuances compelled to look it up. Alice tumbled into the rabbit hole.

In the following, let’s use common English sentence structure:
    subject verb object

A sentence might read,
    A belies B.
    Her eyes belied her motives.

I had assumed belie implied (A) put the lie to (B), the subject is true and the object is false. Surely the verb exhibited a grammatical positive and negative polarity.

Not that simple, said my New Oxford American Dictionary. It offered examples both ways. In other words, sometimes (A) was true and sometimes it wasn’t. Polarity wasn’t constant.

Example 1   A ⇉ B
Example 2   B ⇉ A
Her cruelty belies her kind words.
His smile belies his viciousness.
    B is false (the object).
    A is false (the subject).

Logic (to me) says the subject (A) gives lie to or proves false (B). My beloved 3-volume OED long ago became landfill, so I turned to half a dozen internet dictionaries. A search turned up similar conflicting results. They all agreed about disagreement: Sometimes the subject made a liar of the object and sometimes the object made a liar of the subject.

At that point, I needed to deploy the big guns.

James Lincoln Warren
The legendary
James Lincoln Warren
James Lincoln Warren.

James’ house, a full-scale reproduction of the HMS Hotspur, contains a brass spyglass and a sixteenth century oak podium with the complete Oxford English Dictionary. At least that’s how I imagine it because I’m envious.

James kindly looked up belie for me and lo, it was as lesser dictionaries indicated. Belie cuts both ways. It doesn’t observe polarity. Sometimes the subject is true, sometimes the object.

James said no context beyond the contrast between the subject and object is necessary for them to be easily understood. Which is capable of deception?

Such amorphism disturbs me a bit. Offhand, I can’t think of another word in which, say, the subject sometimes trumps the object and other times the opposite can happen.

Nonplussed – or Not

Once upon a time in the New Oxford American Dictionary, I stumbled upon the following note:
In standard use, ‘nonplussed’ means ‘surprised and confused’: The hostility of the new neighbor's refusal left Mrs. Walker nonplussed.

In North American English, a new use has developed in recent years, meaning ‘unperturbed’— more or less the opposite of its traditional meaning: Hoping to disguise his confusion, he tried to appear nonplussed.

This new use probably arose on the assumption that non- is the normal negative prefix and must therefore have a negative meaning. Although commonly encountered, this modern use of nonplussed is not considered part of standard English, and is better replaced by unperturbed, unruffled, unfazed, or composed.
Never, ever had I heard the second ‘American’ meaning. I conducted a local poll of four dozen or so people. Out of nearly fifty responses, only one thought the second might be valid, but self-admittedly from a verbal standpoint, the word nonplussed was ‘not in his wheelhouse’.

I would have argued the point with Oxford, but I wondered if they had fallen victim to what I think of as the Wikipedia Effect or the Google Effect. If you watch Wikipedia, sometimes public content and wording depends on the loudest, most intimidating bully in the room. Higher level editors can often work these issues out, but when the bully is a higher level editor, the point becomes moot– or deleted along with embarrassing history.

If you haven’t experienced the Google Effect, imagine your long-time neighborhood suddenly called a name you never heard of. You enquire: whence did this come into existence? A van driver might hold the key.

Google Street View Mapping Vehicle + Dalek
Google Street View Mapping Vehicle
The Google Effect refers to Google mapping. You may have seen their vehicles driving the streets. Early versions featured cameras on roof-mounted tripods like Disney World used for its old Circle-Vision theatre in TomorrowLand. The latest cars recently spotted in Winter Park are driven by Daleks.

It turns out Google occasionally didn’t know how to name an area. If they couldn’t find a listing, worker bees exercised various options. Sometimes they asked a random resident, “What do you call this place?” Reportedly one label emerged from an erroneous realtor’s sign. It appears the new name for my old neighborhood came from an obscure street a few feet long called Fairview Shores.

In my selective sampling, all of my victims understood the standard meaning of ‘nonplussed’, except for the unsure guy who didn’t use the word at all. I’d like to ask Oxford how they came up with such a notice? What region in this vast country stands accused of this heresy?

An image sticks in my head, one of Oxford University sending a bored post-grad student to New York to document language abominations. He spends his research time in bars and picking up dates on West End Avenue.

Then on 42nd street, he invites for a romantic rendezvous a certain lady, called ‘Bam-Bam’ by her friends and another name entirely by the NYPD. When she sharply turns him down, he says, “You don’t have to act so negative.”

“I’m not negative, I’m non-plussed,” she replies, whereupon he pulls out his 80p Marks & Spencer notebook and starts jotting a new entry.

That’s how it happened. I’m sure of it.

Curious note: During the impeachment hearings, Fox or one of the righter outlets flashed a headline: Dems Seek Heresy Evidence. I’m nonplussed.


  1. I'm keen to know if 'plussed" was ever a word.

  2. I love this, Leigh! But I have a solution: don't use "belie" or "nonplussed." And I agree, JLW is the absolute best reference for this kind of thing. He and I have occasionally disagreed, and he was always right.

  3. In a way, Janice, we can see 'plussed' as a separate word. If we travel back to Latin, we find 'non plus' means 'no more'. That's a short form of saying, "No more can be evoked."

    John, you're right on both counts. A number of references suggest alternatives for belie in particular, although I like the subtle distinction that belie implies. Nonplussed can have substitutions like surprised, stunned, gobsmacked, etc.

    JLW makes a great (re)source.

  4. Leigh, JLW once told me not to use "snuck" (as in "he snuck up on him") because there's no such word--it should be "sneaked." I believed him, and I still do, but I snuck around and used it anyway.

  5. (1) No such coinage as "plussed" to my knowledge, although "plus" as synonym for add is perfectly sound.

    "Nonplus" is from Latin "non plus", literally "no more", and was originally a noun. (cf. "non plus ultra".) To be at a nonplus meant that no further progress was possible—everything stopped in its tracks. It was later "verbed". Its most common form is now as participial noun: "Leigh was nonplussed."

    (2) The Oxford English Dictionary is an etymological historical descriptive dictionary. It first lists etymology, and then definitions in historical order, i.e., beginning with the earliest usage as the first definition, and then listing successive definitions and usages as the word evolved. The New Oxford Dictionary of English is a college dictionary, and lists definitions by most common usage. It is also descriptive, and like the OED, lists words according to how they are actually used, rightly or wrongly.

    (3) There is a lexical phenomenon, variously called an auto-antonym, autantonym, contronym, or contranym, whereby a word may mean one thing as well as its opposite. A good example of this is "to cleave", which may mean either to join together or to sunder apart. "Nonplus" has thus evolved into one—but I'm sure the mechanism that turned it on its head is incorrectly assuming its meaning from context. This is not rare. For example: "redundant" actually means "superfluous, unnecessary", but most people think it means "repetitive".

  6. Grammar is not supposed to be this fun, Leigh. I just know I’m going to use the word nonplussed this week, eye rolls be damned.

  7. I've seen one of those Google vehicles; I'm glad I'm not the only one who thought of Daleks!

  8. James, I was (and still am) considering an article on contranyms.

    In her Brother Cadfael novels, Ellis Peters seemed to use 'doubt' to mean something like certainty, the opposite of its current meaning. Her use made me wonder if it had switched meanings.

    Thank you for your assistance, my friend.

    Good for you, Larry. You brought back a memory from grade school. A mischevous classmate vowed to use 'unique' in a sentence. Her example– I can't believe I still remember this– "How do you catch a bunny? Unique up on him."

    Jeff, there's only one answer. RUN!

  9. I came across similar, um, doubts in my 18th century series, where my research yielded that misdoubt was frequently used instead to signify uncertainty. But the OED does not indicate that it meaning has significantly changed at any time.

  10. Hmmm... I had always thought of "nonplussed" as meaning "not terribly impressed by".

    For what it's worth! LOL



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