August 18, 2005

I know someone, and I won’t say who he is, who, if reading the New York Times article to which I linked in the post below, “An Exquisite Path to an Elusive Past,” must have been very confused by this sentence contained therein:

The ordinarily unflappable staff at Versailles was nonplussed.

Now, of course, we all know that nonplussed (or its variant, nonplused) means “at a loss as to what to think, say, or do; bewildered,” but my friend persistently and mistakenly maintained, all proof, documentation, and linguistic evidence aside, that the word nonplussed meant something along the lines of unaffected, blasé, or nonchalant, perhaps even unflappable.

And so, to him, my former friend, that particular sentence must have come across as something like:

The ordinarily unflappable staff at Versailles was unflapped.

As critical as all that sounds, I know I’m not perfect. There are certain words I encounter that repeatedly send me to the dictionary, no matter how many times I encounter them. Protean, for example. That’s a word my brain simply won’t take in.

At least I know I enough not to try to use the word in a sentence. I just keep my ignorance -- my protean stupidity -- to myself.

For situations like this, should you encounter them, allow me to recommend I Always Look Up the Word “Egregious,” by Mawell Nurnberg, a work promoted, accurately, as “A vocabulary book for people who don’t need one.”


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