The "Nonplussed" Problem

How long should we cling to a word’s original meaning?

By Ben Yagoda

Correcting the dictionary.Do disinterested and uninterested have different meanings to you?Suppose a friend said to you, "I know you’re disinterested, so I want to ask you a question presently." Then he didn’t say anything. Would you be momentarily nonplussed?

Quite likely, yes. The above paragraph contains four words whose primary definitions have changed or are currently changing. Disinterested traditionally meant "impartial," and now is generally used to mean "uninterested." Presently has gone from "shortly" to "currently"; momentarily from "for a moment" to "in a moment"; and nonplussed from perplexed to unimpressed, or fazed to unfazed. To lend support to my theory that the new meanings now dominate popular usage, I gave an ungraded and anonymous quiz to one of my college classes—an advanced writing seminar. Here is the percentage who gave the "wrong"/new definition:

Disinterested: 94
Momentarily: 88
Presently: 88
Nonplussed: 80

We all know that words change their meanings all the time, sometimes glacially (the prescriptivists have long been fighting on behalf of the "impartial" sense of disinterested) sometimes relatively quickly (that nonplussed thing snuck up on me).* But this fact raises a question (it doesn’t beg the questionthat means something else): How long should we hold on to a word’s old meaning?

Read More>>

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: