Die Grenzen meiner Sprache bedeuten die Grenzen meiner Welt.
The limits of my language are the limits of my world.
This section of the site will examine, ponder, and present brief etymologies, histories and uses of various words and phrases.
A simple way to delineate British English vs. colloquial American English is to notice the general reduction of diverse adjectives and so-called flowery speech. British English – still dripping with the fruits of the physical and scholarly hegemony established by its speakers – serves as the “voice of authority,” in most western visual mediums. Even when taken to animated features and sci-fi films set in the distant future the British accent remains as the standard for expressing intellect, class, and prime facie right to opine and rule. This practice stands as a testament to the power of words and cultural hegemonies. America, which stands astride world history and one of the nations most sure of its right of independence and its exceptionalism is the greatest offender in the use of British accents in its film media. It is also greatly complicit in the projection of this imagery via it’s vast television and film tentacles which encircle the globe. Therefore it can be an illuminating practice to analyze the etymological maturation of words and their use between the nations who share a “special relationship.”
Here in the U.S. the term, ‘nonplussed,’ is used to denote a feeling of being calm, or unbothered. However, the original meaning of the term is nearly the complete opposite. It is the one still accepted in most dictionaries and by English speakers across the world.
Wanting to keep this brief survey of the term’s usage as grounded as possible I began by performing a word search on my personal library. From an essay titled, “The living tradition,” Ahmadou Hamptaté Bâ, born in Senegal and educated by the British/EU system we see the term used thusly:
Then I performed a search for the term’s use by an Australian, another person connected to the British English fraternity but has spent time away from it, and found their usages to be in alignment with the dictionary and the British.
So with these three quick examples we can see anecdotal confirmation of the words different uses, based on geographic education. The person with a British educational background used the term to connote confusion or apprehension, “… after a long silence: ‘It was total knowledge’, and say no more.” The Australian used the term to describe outsiders to Australian politics who “might not understand the hybrid contours…” While the American used to to describe how unbothered Gilroy was about the information the attorney was sharing with him.
How did we get here?
Mark Liberman, a linguist, discussed this term’s transition on his blog the Language Log and posited that the word’s alteration came through confusion with other similar terms.
“The other words that mean something similar to the traditional sense of nonplussed—perplexed, confounded, confused, addled, befuddled, bewildered, muddled, etc.—are generally un-negated, while there are quite a few words with a sense similar to the new meaning of nonplussed that include a negative element: impassive, unperturbed, nonchalant, unfazed.”
This particular term isn’t used that often in colloquial speech but all of the people I’ve personally discussed it with had been surprised at its etymology. And while it appears to have been used in the U.S. in this capacity for a few decades, its yet to be fully accepted as a new definition for the term.
So for the time being be aware if you’re in London or Sydney and you want to express that you’re not concerned about something, you may be saying the opposite thing.
Even words being used by people speaking the same language can end up lost in translation.