Are you puzzled by “nonplus?” Read today’s blog posting . . . .

As a child, I can remember loving to hear onomatopoeic words. I loved them long before I knew that Book case with booksterm. “Splash,” “jumping,” “disaster,” were all close (or belonging to) the onomatopoeic. A favourite from undergrad days was “brouhaha,” although that particular example never came up in essay writing. A year or two after telling a friend that I liked the term and the phenomena, a friend reported that he’d witnessed a discussion with staff at Tim Horton’s. There, he said, a discussion on the concept of dairy-free pastries “resulted in a brouhaha.”

Today I want to discuss a similar theme that I recall noticing, as a child: “words that don’t mean what they’re supposed to.” By this, I mean words that evoke by sound a meaning that is contrary to their actual meaning. A case in point? “Nonplus.”

Imagine my delight when American etymologist Bryan Garner recently discussed the very term, in his daily blog! He writes that “nonplus” as a verb means “to baffle or confound unexpectedly.” The term appears (and is pronounced) alike in both American and British English. That is because with both ” ‘nonplussed’ and ‘nonplussing,’ . . . the second syllable is stressed.”

People commonly define the term “nonplus” as puzzlement. But according to its sound, one might think that it means “apathetic” or “not astonished” or “not surprised.” That impression might arise because the “plus” portion of the word might be thought to suggest agitated.

Now, “nonplus” may not arise in business English (or even in academic English) often. And I am flirting with linguists’ territory here, which belongs to them! But the case of “nonplus” does demonstrate that we should not infer sound-based meaning in what we read and write. Doing so could confuse you. And confuse any reader whom you address with it.

As Plain Language advocates say, if you can avoid confusion over diction, then do so. Why use “nonplussed” when “puzzled” will do?

Do you have any words in mind that similarly “fail to mean what they’re supposed to” (i.e. do not mean what they sound like)? Please share them with me. I’d be delighted to hear what words that leave you nonplussed. . . .

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