Word Pedantry

Paul Krugman writes today that Obama should ignore all the contrarians in the media suggesting that an overwhelming electoral victory and gains in the Senate in the House means Obama should clearly scale back his agenda. While injecting obvious sensibility into the debate has clear merit, the conclusion, I think, is pretty obvious (this is a sad truth of political punditry it seems — namely that because so many people are focused on having a “unique” take, that making the obvious point is itself unique). Anyway, Krugman’s column is also useful in demonstrating correct usage of the word “nonplussed.”

Maybe the best way to highlight the importance of that fact is to contrast this year’s campaign with what happened four years ago. In 2004, President Bush concealed his real agenda. He basically ran as the nation’s defender against gay married terrorists, leaving even his supporters nonplussed when he announced, soon after the election was over, that his first priority was Social Security privatization. That wasn’t what people thought they had been voting for, and the privatization campaign quickly devolved from juggernaut to farce.

Duly noted. Also, many people assume that nonplussed means something like “having lost one’s composure” or “shaken.” While those meanings are sort of correct, it’s really more accurately used to mean “perplexed” or “baffled.”

To help illustrate the point, think about a time when you might be inclined to ask “WTF” — say you were outscored on a test by someone you considered a vastly inferior intellect. It is almost certainly true you would be nonplussed, but you wouldn’t necessarily be shaken or have lost your composure. Similarly, there are many situations in which you could be shaken or unnerved, but in which you would not be nonplussed.


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