World O’ Words: Nonplussed, or not, by ‘nonplussed

Plus: ‘Esprit d’escalier’ and ‘Arigata-Meiwaka

“N onplussed” is a word that puzzles me. I’ve always taken it to mean “thrown for a loop,” “to be taken aback.” For example: “I was nonplussed by the sudden news of your sex change!”

But then, I’ve heard it used to mean the opposite: “You ran at me violently, crazily; but I was nonplussed and stood my ground.”

I check the dictionary. It turns out both definitions are correct — in North America one can use “nonplussed” to mean “unperturbed.” It’s because of that prefix “non,” generally taken to be a negation of what follows it.

But that would mean the opposite of “nonplussed” would be “plussed,” and there’s no such word as that, thank God.

So then, what would the opposite of “nonplussed”? In the sense I’ve always understood the meaning “nonplussed” it would be one of the great words in the English language: “Unfazed!” There is no double meaning with this word.

“You ran at me violently, crazily, but I was unfazed!”

But this begs the question: Would the opposite of “nonplussed” in the “North American sense then be “fazed.” “Un” is a detachable prefix, after all. I say yes, but I also say no, because “fazed” is only ever used in a negative sentence. One says “Your violent, crazy behaviour didn’t faze me one bit.” But no one in history has ever said “Your violent crazy behaviour really fazed me.” They say, “I was nonplussed by your violent, crazy behaviours,” except in North America, where we say …

Perhaps I should start again. I’ll get back to you, in this space, some other time …

In last week’s column, I mentioned the French term esprit d’escalier — “Spirit of the Stairs” — which the English language has adopted. Esprit d’escalier describes that moment when you have been bested in an argument, a meeting with the boss, a debate — any situation where your conversational partner has delivered a devastating comment that has left you grasping for a thought, unable to offer any riposte that will give your dignity back, let alone win you the argument. You leave the room, completely dissatisfied, and you are on the way out, on the stairs, in fact, when that perfect response comes to you, the comeback that would have given you the upper hand. Way too late, of course, and it would almost have been better to not have thought of it at all.

Esprit d’escalier — all I can say is, as one who is continually bested in conversation, I should be so lucky to think of the perfect comeback while on the stairs. Sometimes the perfect comeback doesn’t occur to me until years later. Mostly, it doesn’t occur to me at all, even though I know it’s out there, floating around, that clever response. These are the kind of things one goes to law school for, to learn all these perfect comebacks by heart, so you’re never caught short.

While English can boast of having the most words, the ones we lend out to other languages tend to be short, concise and business-oriented: “Cashflow” seems to be especially popular.

But the words and terms we borrow from other languages, like Esprit d’escalier, tend to capture nuances of human behaviour in all its complexity — like “Schadenfreude” (taking joy in someone else’s misfortune) or “age-otori” (Japanese for “to look worse after your haircut”).

But the global word (or compound noun) I’m going to leave you with today is “Arigata-meiwaka,” also Japanese, which describes an act someone does for you that you really, really don’t want them to do, but they do it anyway, determined to do you a favour, and of course it goes sideways, and causes you a great deal of trouble, but social convention requires you to thank them anyway.” (courtesy


Next week in World O’Words: “Death to Articles!”

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