Nonplussed about Unpaired Words (or: a brief digression about problematic words, Euclidian geometry, and Sesame Street)

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

This bit of tangential thinking was forced upon me by the word “nonplussed.”

Which reminds me (a tangent of a tangent—I should coin a word for this definition), of Sesame Street, a show that existed even when I was young, kids, only with more Big Bird and no Elmo. The show would always announce that it was being brought to you today by the letter K and the number 3 (or something like that).

This post was brought to you today, at least in part, by the word nonplussed.

I encountered the word from different sources on consecutive days. I think one of the encounters was within the pages of Michael Connelly’s excellent Harry Bosch novel, City of Bones.

The second chance meeting was something else; it doesn’t matter what, but I believe it was in print, not something I overheard on television or during a podcast. No matter. I’ve come across the word many times over the years, I think. It’s one of those words that you understand from the way it’s used in a sentence.

It’s also one of those words that I apparently never found interesting enough to take a deeper look at, such as finding its definition in a dictionary. Nonplussed—even today—never seemed to be the sort of word I would work into an original sentence. In fact, I’d hazard a guess that this post marks the first time I’ve ever typed the word itself.

Okay, that’s a lie. On my long list of potential post topics, I typed the word nonplussed as a potential writing prompt around the time the word attacked me from separate, coincidental directions. So, that would have been the first time I’ve typed the word, not in this post.

I’ve always attested that written language is the closest thing humans have to magic, so I don’t make a habit of disparaging any words. However, nonplussed doesn’t seem to be my type of word. Maybe it’s the sibilant s-sounds, or the prefix non (which tends to weaken any word, as in noncombatant and nondairy). Maybe it’s simply the fact that the word still looks weird to my eyes.

This has happened to me before. Genre and paradigm are two examples of this. I occasionally bumped into these words during my reading, and they weren’t in common usage during that time. In my head, I pronounced genre as “jenner,” and paradigm summoned images of the Sugar Smacks cereal mascot, Dig’em Frog.

When sugar became a bad word, the cereal became Honey Smacks here in the US. I have it on good authority that Honey Monster Puffs in the UK are similar. I find it strange that the word sugar is no longer welcome, but the word smack—an established street name for heroin—was deemed suitable in a product marketed to children.

When I was a child, I could buy candy cigarettes, too. Hell, I could buy real cigarettes in South Carolina. But, I digress—

My point is that I’m now comfortable using the words genre and paradigm, and these words are in common usage now. Perhaps I’ll someday feel the same about nonplussed.

We know each other well, you and I. You know I’ve been thinking about my earlier tangent of a tangent quip since I wrote the phrase. My thoughts on the matter have been running as a subroutine beneath all of these other words I’ve been typing briskly. These thoughts led me down a brief rabbit hole of Euclidian geometry, and some quick and lackadaisical research into the definition of tangent, which Leibniz described as a line through infinitely close points on a curve.

My disappearance into differential calculus was a brief one. I quickly realized that tangential thinking is a product of psychology, a so-called “soft” science devoid of mathematical rigor. As such, this type of thinking, often seen as an abnormal process and one manifestation of the psychosis known as schizophrenia, can’t be plotted using Cartesian coordinates.

I believe—at least in regard to mathematics—it’s impossible to have a tangent of a tangent, although a curve can have multiple tangents. What I’m referring to as a tangent of a tangent, in regards to tangential thinking, is really more of a branch off of my original thought rather than a true tangent. Maybe. I’m still working this out in my head.

I believe it is all connected somehow. I just can’t see the forest for the trees at the moment. Trees . . . branches. Stop it!

Photo by Johannes Plenio on

Anyhow, the word nonplussed is defined thusly: adjective (of a person) surprised and confused so much that they are unsure how to react. At the same time, the word has assumed a more modern, though informal, definition: adjective (of a person) not disconcerted; unperturbed.

For those of you still along for the ride, that means that nonplussed means a person is bewildered and perplexed while remaining untroubled and carefree. Two opposite meanings, at the same time.

This conundrum could be solved more easily if the word plussed actually had a definition. All signs indicate that it doesn’t even exist as a word, let alone have a definition. Nonplussed is what the language experts call an unpaired word—a word that appears to have a related word, but does not. Other examples: disgruntled; inert; and, ruthless.

By the way, why do the words inflammable and flammable mean the same thing?

This was all just a brief rest stop along Sesame Street, brought to you today by unpaired words and the imaginary number zedquornf.

I’m feeling nonplussed tonight.

Also, more than a little gruntled and startlingly ert.


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