The “Nonplussed” Problem

The title of this post is also the title of a great (and word-wonky) article on Slate as forwarded to me by Russell Sauve. Thanks!

The first paragraph is the most important and illustrative of the ways in which language changes over time:

Suppose a friend said to you, “I know you’re disinterested, so I want to ask you a question presently.” Then he didn’t say anything. Would you be momentarily nonplussed?

The four words being questioned – disinterested, presently, momentarily & nonplussed – are all misused or, more accurately, used in their newly-evolved meaning by yours truly.

I can use momentarily in both ways, but for the other three – especially nonplussed – I’ve move on to the newer meanings.

Read the whole article. Well worth your time and much better than those “versus” and etymology posts I’m prone to doing here every so often. And while I can be a pedant about pronunciation and grammar, I’m not nearly so anal as to recognize that language is fluid because its speakers change over time.

Happy Monday!


In honor of National Punctuation Day (Thx, Buzzfeed!), I’m going to ignore the topic altogether and focus on more vocabulary fun. Besides, I butcher commas and quotes anyhow.

I was never a big believer in either “when in doubt, leave it out” or “less is more”. More is, empirically, more. Just check out that last sentence: two.

I digress.

Here’s long-time reader, second-time emailer Mel and her contribution suggestion:

What is the real verb form of the word “incentive?” Per, “incentivize” entered the lexicon around 1965. What did we say before that? Doesn’t “incite” pretty much mean the same thing? Do you think people moved to “incentivize” during that era because “incite” was associated with the word “riots?”

I’ve never been a fan of the verb “incentivize” because it seems like so much marketing-speak and I try not to use my buzzword/work vocabulary in a private, personal space. Also, the auto-spell-check in Firefox chokes on it.

I prefer “incent” but that’s not really a word either; it just sounds less made-up. I suppose I need a digital file now for imaginary words that should be actual words.

In any case, Mel makes a good point and poses an interesting question. I’m inclined to nod my head and agree with her without too much digging or research because the answer feels right, but keep in mind I say “incent”. 😉

Paul Brians, whom I’ve mentioned previously, has this to say on the whole incent/incentivize/encourage continuum:

Business folks sometimes use “incent” to mean “create an incentive,” but it’s not standard English. “Incentivize” is even more widely used, but strikes many people as an ugly substitute for “encourage.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself, but I still think the component that incent/ivize possesses that encourages lacks is the understanding of some kind of exchange – not necessarily money, per se, but some form of equity or currency – in exchange for a positive outcome/preferred behavior.

In that case, maybe incent/incentivize aren’t poorly-formed constructs, since their connotations are the sole ownership of business and marketing folks and that’s the whole point.

As to Mel’s larger socio-political question, I’ll leave that research and debate open to comments.

Happy National Punctuation Day!