Monday, March 26, 2012

Mangled meaning: why it infuriates me!

It's the kind of word you don't usually say, or even hear, but it shows up in print journalism a lot, and (plenty) in books.

It's a word that is so consistently defined incorrectly,  no one seems to know what it means at all any more.  When that happens, when the tide of popular opinion is strong enough, slowly, surely, relentlessly, even ruthlessly, the (completely erroneous) "new" meaning of the word will drill and squeak its way into the dictionary and become "correct".

This means that the wrong definition, no matter how egregious, will suddenly be right. Orwell would recognize the irony.

Nonplussed. It's an odd sort of word that people pull out and use when they want to look or sound educated or highfalutin' (another interesting word). Almost always, it's used something like this:

"She was nonplussed when her boyfriend dumped her for a more attractive woman, for after all, he was a wretched shithead and she was about to dump him anyway."

"When the police raided her apartment, found 500 pounds of cocaine and slapped her in handcuffs, she was nonplussed: not only was the chief of police her best customer, he also had a taste for the white stuff."

In other words, in the public view, in almost everyone's view, nonplussed is supposed to mean nonchalant, cool, unruffled, unworried, unbothered, calm, composed, and all those things. "Nonplussed!" You know what I mean!

No, no, noooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!

Here is what the word nonplussed means. (By the way, this matches every other online dictionary definition I was able to find.)

tr.v. non·plussed also non·plused, non·plus·sing also non·plus·ing, non·plus·ses also non·plus·es
To put at a loss as to what to think, say, or do; bewilder.

n. A state of perplexity, confusion, or bewilderment

In other words, the exact opposite of the popular definition, the one everyone seems to have voted on in a secret ballot a few years ago.
Do you know what happens in cases like this? A writer will use the word nonplussed CORRECTLY in an article or (God help us) a non-fiction book or a novel, and an editor will take a big red pencil, cross the whole sentence out and write, "Wrong useage!" or "Get a dictionary!" or some-such comment in the margins. If not with a pencil, then electronically. The writer will be penalized and scolded for committing the unpardonable sin of wrong definition/useage, for what could be worse for a wordsmith than that?

Don't ask your editor to please please please look it up. They will be deeply offended by the very suggestion that they don't know their business, that in fact you know better than they do (unheard-of!), and the fragile bond between you will be frazzled, if not severed outright.
This is nasty stuff. Even if somehow-or-other your editor finds out you were right all along, he or she might say something along the lines of, "But people don't KNOW it means perplexity, confusion, or bewilderment. They think it means cool-headedness and detachment. If you use it this way you'll look like you're making a mistake and it will make us look bad." (That last part I added; they never say it out loud.)

How could people end up getting it so wrong, flipping the meaning around to its opposite? They see the prefix "non" and they think it means "not". "Plussed" somehow registers in their minds as "upset": but why? It has nothing to do with such things.

The expression comes from the Latin non plus, which literally means "no more".  (And I'd be happy to see no more of this casual mangling of the English language.) No more is kind of neutral and a little hard to define, but if something is "non -" (-fat, -white, -sense), it obviously means "NOT".  But if you're "not plussed", what are you? Not upset? Why does plussed mean upset? Doesn't "plus" just mean "more"? Yes. The more you look at it, the less sense it makes.

Why does this happen? How on earth can the meaning of a word flip over into its opposite? More to the point: why does this bother me so much?  Because people do not think or question. They do what everyone else is doing: tribal mentality, so a sabre-tooth tiger won't eat them in the parking lot.

I can't get into all the other examples of mangled meaning because it's Monday morning and I'm already getting tired, but there's another one that irritates me so much that I must mention it here. As it turns out, it has not two but three parts, a trifecta of verbal carelessness.

I am continually hearing statements along the lines of, "The statistics on this subject simply do not jive with the facts."  Yes, you heard me right.

So what does jive mean? It's a pretty cool word that refers to swing music, or the dance performed to such music (I've done it before, and it has nothing to do with statistics). Hey man, let's jive!

Jibe means to match up or line up or equal or be congruent with, which is where people get confused. Similar things do not dance together, though the image may be absurdly funny. But then there is another word that can jump into the confusing mix: gibe, meaning a nasty comment or a taunt.   

So are we supposed to constantly stop what we're doing and look up words we're not sure about in an online dictionary? YES. If there is any doubt at all, DO IT. If your editor says "no, that's wrong," and you KNOW it is right, insist that he or she go to the dictionary and look it up.

Bother. Care. Take the time. Go out of your way. We're not living in caves any more and we won't be eaten if we don't follow the herd like cattle. Protest the casual mangling of language, even if you risk being criticized for getting it wrong (which you will). Words should not mean what we want them to mean. They mean what they mean. Am I a purist? About this? Fuck, yes! 

I don't want to somehow get transported into the future and hear an unintelligible garble that used to pass for language. Yes, we somehow had to evolve from Chaucer to today's standard English, but I don't think people back then were casually crossing out meanings and changing them according to whim (or, more likely, popular opinion). In other words, for something as crucial and beautiful and powerful as language, there should be a standard, or how on earth are we ever going to communicate in a world that seems to be hurtling along at a billion miles an hour?

If a word means one thing to one person, and its exact opposite to the next person, what might that mean to detente?

And no, that doesn't mean "detention" in French. Go look it up.