Word nobbling


I just noticed this in a Washington Post article, and it annoyed me enough to post about it.

My younger sister told me a story about visiting the home of friends when the teenage daughter's date arrived. The daughter came downstairs in a T-shirt that read, "Strippers do it with poles." The parents seemed nonplussed; it was the boy who said to them, "You're letting her go out of the house in that ?"

This passage utterly misuses a word. Not that the contents of the article don't annoy me, but the misuse of the English language is what has me on a tear at the moment. Can you spot the mistake?

In the above quote, the author misuses the word "nonplussed." The sense in which they have used nonplussed there is "Ambivalent, not caring one way of the other, not having particularly strong feelings on a subject." This is the way you generally hear nonplussed used. It is completely wrong. Nonplussed does not, under any circumstances, ever, mean ambivalent. I imagine the incorrect meaning comes from a mistake in puzzling out the word's meaning (Non-plussed, without plusses, that is, not positive, meaning not caring. So nonplussed must mean not caring, or not positive, but also not really negative) coupled with frequent misuse.

Nonplussed means, and you can check the Oxford English Dictionary, Merriam-Websters, or Dictionary.com to back me up, "to be at a loss for what to say, think, or do. Bewildered, confused, or perplexed." One can understand how so many people get the wrong sense of what the word mean; there are a lot of situations where, in the context of a sentence, describing someone as nonplussed, if you don't know what the word means, could equally well mean that they are confused or that they are ambivalent, since in either case it means that they won't act. And, as mentioned above, the word seems to lend itself by its construction to meaning something like "neutral" or "ambivalent." Nonetheless: that's not what it means. When the girl came down the stairs in her lewd t-shirt, the author almost certainly did not mean to say that the parent were shocked into utter speechlessness. She meant to say that they just didn't care, in which case nonplussed is the wrong word to describe them.


I'm going to theorize that you are wrong.

Try this: assume an implied "but" in that sentence. The parents seemed nonplussed, but clearly the boy was even more shocked since he was the one to speak. I can easily imagine that being the situation; while the parents gape at each other and try to figure out who's going to say something, the boy blurts out the thought first. In that case, they are using the word entirely correctly.

The problem here is that frequent misuse has made it difficult to tell if the word is being used correctly or incorrectly without asking, which is purely ridiculous. It's much like the problem with "comprise", where the listener has to infer from context whether the speaker is using it correctly -- to have as its component parts -- or incorrectly -- as a synonym for compose. It actually defeats the purpose of words; I'm now considering asking people, instead of misusing words, to substitute "wurbleflap" in any case where they're uncertain if they're speaking correctly. The process of figuring out what the hell they mean would be just as easy as it is now.

As for the content of the article, damnit, that shirt's not even very clever. The whole idea behind that shirt genre is that the sexual meaning is the one that occurs to the reader first, causing the "oh hee hee whoops" reaction upon realizing that there's a perfectly innocent meaning. For instance: Socialists Do It In Groups. There. Funny.

But the Strippers Do It With Poles shirt is all backwards. My first thought was yes, we know strippers do it with poles, they use the poles as a prop for their dancing, so? I had to think about it to come up with the sexual meaning, by which time the joke just wasn't worth it to me anymore.

So either I'm not sufficiently alert for synonyms for dick, or that shirt just isn't funny.

Hum. I think that I'm right, but I can't articulate why using the portion quoted. The article in question, which can be found here, has as it's general thesis "girls today dress too sexily, and the problem is do-nothing parents who don't discipline them and set them straight." I was reluctant to link to it because the author gets into a lot of anti-feminist argumentation, and I didn't want that to distract from the point I was making on language. Now that you point it out, though, both my reading and yours are plausible with what I quoted.

With respect to the article, I lost all ability to take the author seriously when I got to the paragraph, in the middle of the first page, where she blames the sexualization of teenagers on the advent of reliable birth control. Besides the fact that the contention is completely ahistorical, she strongly implies that things would be better if there were still close to a one-to-one ratio between times girls have sex and times girls get pregnant. Also, she argues that fathers need to take the lead role in de-sexualizing their teenage daughters. It gives off a creepy "Daughters are the chatel of their fathers until ownership is passed to the husband when they marry" vibe. Maybe I'm reading too much into it.

Actually, the point where I stopped taking her seriously was in the first paragraph, where she argued that Victoria's Secret has gotten too gol-darned sexual lately.

In the first paragraph, third sentence, I believe you mean "its" and not "it's". Also, chattel has two Ts. As I recently mentioned in another blog, "Being a post about grammar, one cannot make a grammatical error and get away with it." Heheh.

On the basis of context, I now have less faith in my theory than I did. Second theory: this woman is really pissing me off. She's a therapist? She's a fucking reactionary, and not just antifeminist but possessed of the same repertoire of bullshit "kids these days and their terrible ways are the downfall of our society; quick, punish them before they destroy our values" nonsense that's been said by every generation of overwhelmed parents since time immemorial.

Bah. Garbage. I am anything but nonplussed by her.

In the first paragraph, third sentence of your 2:02 a.m. comment, I mean.

Now you see why I excluded the context of the larger article from the original post; even with my prior exposure to the article's contents, my livid state when discussing it caused me to completely disregard grammar and spelling.

The birth control thing really set me off. I don't carefully scrutinize everything that I read for logical gaps and flaws in argumentation, but lamenting the existence of safe, easily available birth control for women is a sure way to set off every alarm in my head and put me into close textualist mode.

For one, birth control helps alleviate one of the only biological differences between men and women, one that's been exploited to put women in an inferior place for a long time. Obviously, it gives the woman control of her sexuality to a degree that wasn't really possible when there was a close correlation between sex and pregnancy. But it also lets her control or forego reproduction, thereby giving her much the same control of her professional and social life that men have always enjoyed.

The anti-feminist argument on this seems to take the broad form "Sure, you have more freedom now. But look! Sometimes freedom causes new and scary bad things to happen to you! Wouldn't you feel more comfortable going back to the way things were, letting a man handle things for you?" I feel this is akin to taking a person who's spent their whole life in a wheel chair, then giving them therapy that allows them to walk. Then, when in the course of walking they trip and skin their knees, telling them "Wow, that's rough. Wouldn't you rather be back in your wheelchair where it's safe and this sort of thing wouldn't happen?"

There's also the legal dimension to birth control arguments. Roe v. Wade is based on the precedent of Griswold v. Connecticut, a case that struck down a Connecticut law banning distribution of birth control (for women) as an unconstitutional violation of the right to privacy. The tricky thing is that, while most agree there ought to be a right to privacy in the constitution, it's not explicitly there as an amendment. There are amendments keeping the government out of your business on specific issues, but in Griswold the Supreme Court, for the first time, synthesized the written clauses and unwritten codiciles of the constitution and from them derived a broad privacy right. The right to privacy, thus, is on somewhat shaky constitutional grounds, and right now there are at least two justices (Scalia and Thomas) who flat out think it's a fiction. And there's possibly a third (Roberts) who doesn't believe in it, and the strong potential for a fourth (Alito).

So, getting back on point, whenever people start making arguments that the pill was a bad thing, I get very suspicious that they might have an ulterior motive in attacking the roots of Roe and other Privacy Right jurisprudence.

When people say that attacking birth control options really sets them off, I tend to assume that it's for reasons directly related to the issue at hand -- sexual politics, a feminist sociological agenda, that sort of thing. Constitutional reasons is a new one to me, but possibly one with more political power than my approach.

The birth-control argument, being closely tied to the women's sexual freedom argument, runs smack into the problem that perpetually dogs feminism: is it correct for women to embrace sex and open sexuality? Somehow both feminists and nonfeminists have gotten confused on this point, and it's turned into a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't situation. If you do embrace sex, you're objectifying yourself and catering to The Male Agenda (capital letters added to distinguish this from the actual agenda of any given actual male). If you don't, you're reinforcing the virgin/whore dichotomy and putting the nails in the coffin of those who do embrace it (those sluts).

Digression: my sister, a stubborn bitchy feminist much like myself (but with spikier hair) who participated in last year's Pride Weekend Dyke March and has a tattoo of a stylized vagina on her back, will call a woman a cunt as an insult if and only if the woman has done something grievously inappropriate beyond the usual range of grievous inappropriateness. I'm still trying to figure this one out.

Geez, what was my point here?

The only good argument that I can see for a negative consequence of the pill is that it lulls people into a false sense of security: gosh, with pregnancy taken care of, we can now have unprotected sex with impunity, undermining decades of work on STD prevention. But that's not a reason to take it away, it's a reason to step up get-tested programs and STD education. Besides, assuming that people are switching from responsible condom use to pill only, instead of cross-your-fingers to pill only, is not terribly realistic. In the latter case, knocking out one of the major problems of unprotected sex is still an improvement if you can get people to do it.

More on this later, as work calls.

I have some thoughts on the sexuality thing, but I'm not sure, being, as you may have noticed, a guy, how relevant they are. I will no doubt miss nuances of being female, and I apologize in advance for the inadequacies of my thoughts on the subject. That having been said:

It strikes me that sexuality, male or female, is healthy and appropriate to express provided it is done as a genuinely self-directed means of expression. That is to say, it's fine if you're doing it for yourself. It's somewhat hazier, but probably acceptable, if you're doing it for another that you care about, provided you feel that any qualms you may have are outweighed by the other's legitimate desires. On the other hand, if you're doing it for the approval of Others, capitalized to indicate the undistinguished masses of people out there, it's much more troublesome.

I have my own story about this, completely non-sexual. In middle school I was deeply, deeply unpopular. I had a small cadre of about 6 friends, and spent most of my time being insulted and excluded by other kids. Then one day in 8th Grade I discovered a way to get people to like me. I had this schtick where I would pretend to be a computer, people could tell me what to do and I'd do it. This generally involved me going to other people and saying really inappropriate things. For about a week, I was really popular, in a manner of speaking, among a certain crowd. Then they lost interest and went back to harassing me, and I realized that the whole time I was being an asshole, something I'm generally not, in order to get their approval. And, of course, none of them really liked me the way they liked one another; I was just a toy for their amusement.

I feel like a lot of young women, and this is just my observation as a third-party, have an attitude towards sexuality that's similar to my attitude towards embarrassing myself for the approval of others. It's not something they really enjoy, but they do it because they think it'll make them popular.

This is not, of course, to say "Girls should stop being slutty!" Nor is it to say "We need to do something affirmative to force girls to stop doing things that hurt their self-esteem in the long run." It's just to suggest that publicly expressed sexuality is fine provided you're doing it for yourself, not for the approval of others.

I threw the last comment into Word to get a quick spell-check. Word does not believe that "Slutty" is a real word. It suggests "Sluttish" as an alternative. Sluttish seems like the sort of word an awkward Victorian English banker, solid middle-class sort, would use:

"Pardon the suggestion, Dierdre, and you'll excuse me if I am being a tad forward in my inquiry, but isn't your dress, well, rather a bit on the sluttish side?"

I agree, but here's a question which may or not constitute diabolical advocacy on my part.

Is it just young women? Is it just women at all? I would suspect that men seek public approval via sex just as much, though both the pressure to do so and the responsive behavior may take slightly different forms. Being not male, though, I'm poorly equipped to do more than suspect. Thoughts?

I recall a book which I had out from the library at some point, called Slut! by Leora Tanenbaum (I may have triflingly misspelled the last name). Given how long I kept checking it out to myself, I should really remember more about it, but suffice it to say that if you continue to be interested in this topic you may want to find it and take a look at it. A large part of it is made up of interviews with girls about their sexuality, which, seeing as it's a rather individual matter, are much more consequential than some damn writer's opinions. Actually, once my library privileges are up and running again, I think I'll try to get my hands on the Stacks copy again. It's quite a good read.

I would say that there is a lot of pressure on men, sex-wise, but I'm sort of divorced from it. I've never really hung out with a crowd that did much in the way of sexual braggadocio. Nonetheless, my current roommate talks about his sexual exploits a lot, and it makes me uncomfortable. Of course, I'm not sure how much of it is his sexual exploits and how much of it is not being really comfortable talking to him in general. Nonetheless: In general my social relationships are pretty sex-neutral.

At the same time, there is an undeniable societal pressure on men to have a lot more sex than I'm having, and to be quite public about it. Again, back to my roommate (who isn't a bad guy, we're just not very compatible). He's nice about it, but he clearly has a very hard time understanding why on a Friday night I'd rather sit at home and read a book or watch a movie than go out trawling in bars. When I do go out with other law school people (which is pretty rare), I tend to get uncomfortable when sex comes up.

For instance, when I was at a bar night early in the year, one of the male students pulled me aside, pointed across the room at a girl, and asked "Hey, so, how would you rate her, on a scale of 1-10?" "What?" "You know, on a scale of 1-10, how hot is she?" At that point I went into panic mode and started blushing and stuttering. I think I eventually picked a number on the high side when the guy wouldn't let it go. Then he pressed me. "Really? What makes you go that high? She seems a bit chubby for me," or some such. "I... I d-d-don't knnnnnow. I thhhhink I'd b---etter go get another drink."

So: Yes, there's a lot of pressure put on men to be publicly sexual, but I tend to ignore or avoid it.

Also: I'd be interested in any recommendations you have for other readings on feminist theory. I've only read The Feminine Mystique and Susan Okun's Justice, Gender, and the Family (the latter has my highest endorsement, by the way). For instance, you mention the Virgin/Slut dichotomy, and I believe I've heard it elsewhere. Where does that come from?

While I agree and am annoyed by the usage of nonplussed. It is in fact how I ended up here, after seeing nonplussed misused in another publication today. But does anyone else find it ironic that in his rant about misusing language and English, he misused the word ambivalent? Ambivalent, in fact, means quite the opposite of not having any opinion. It refers to having two conflicting opinions or attitudes. Additionally, it means uncertainty or indecisiveness as to which course to follow. In that sense, it is pretty much a synonym of nonplussed, which implies a sense of perplexity so great that further action is impossible.

You are right though, I hate when people misuse words.

I don't think the use is incorrect. That is, one who is ambivalent about an issue does not care one way or the other. But they don't care for one side in a way that involves advocating for both sides.

Further, I think Ambivalent is closer to the incorrect meaning of nonplussed than to the correct meaning. An ambivalent person can be said to express no coherent opinion on the subject, but they are not inherently in a state of perplexity. I tend to find that, as a practical matter, most who are ambivalent on an issue are that way because they simply don't care enough to form a coherent opinion. They therefore hold one view with one audience and another view with another.

For example: The law professor who adopts the opposite position to what the student she calls on argues for. She then calls on another student who makes the opposite argument, and switches sides to the opinion she was just attacking. This, I think, defines ambivalence: The professor doesn't care about the issue, and so she argues both sides of it.

The professor is ambivalent. She doesn't care one way or the other. She is therefore close to the incorrect definition of nonplussed. But she is not confused or perplexed. Therefore, she is not properly nonplussed.

No, Zach. You are wrong. It is ok. You can just admit it.

The situation with the professor is not ambivalence. It is a teacher playing devil's advocate for the sake of a lesson. The professor probably does have a well defined opinion on the matter, but in order to make class interesting and further your education, she is taking the opposing viewpoint.

Furthermore, ambivalence is defined by conflicting opinions on a subject. It is very clearly defined as having two viewpoints in opposition to one another; of two minds. In fact, people who are ambivalent usually feel strongly about both sides hence the confusion and bewilderment. The word comes from "ambi" meaning both and "valentia" meaning strength. The conflicting opinions prevents any opinion from being expressed. Something similar to being nonplussed.

Regardless of what you wish to think, you misused and continue to misdefine ambivalent.

You know what? I don't care. I'm honestly not interested in having this debate right now. I spent the last weekend outlining a 15 page brief that will be entirely on the subject of what the proper meaning of the word "authorization" is; I will be spending this weekend writing that brief. My desire to engage in a semantic debate about how I used the word "ambivalent" 2 1/2 months ago is practically nill.

If you'd like to talk about other things on the blog, you're welcome. But I'm simply not in the mood for endless linguistic arguments. I get more than enough of that in my day job.

While I sympathize with your not wanting to argue linguistics regarding a discussion from months ago, come on now. You wrote a whole thing about how much you hate misused words, and then refuse to admit when you in fact did the same thing. Ambivalent means, from Merriam-Webster, "simultaneous and contradictory attitudes or feelings (as attraction and repulsion) toward an object, person, or action." it means having _strong_ desires in _both_ directions. it also means "uncertainty as to which approach to follow", which is a state that arises from not having an opinion at all as well as from being ambivalent. that is why many people misuse ambivalent, because they cannot make a decision.

don't be afraid to admit you were wrong. i hate when people misuse words too, but i admit when i've made the same mistake and try to improve my vocabulary. precision counts!

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This page contains a single entry by Zach published on November 20, 2005 7:58 PM.

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