Words You Always Have to Look Up

5 Jul 2023
dog with a perplexed expression

There’s so much going on with nonplussed. First of all, if non- means “not” (nontoxic) or “unimportant” (nonissues), what is being negated? What is the opposite of being plussed?

It turns out that nonplus comes from the Latin words non plus, meaning “no more,” and originally referred to a point in reasoning or argument at which “one is unable to proceed or decide,” according to Noah Webster’s definition from 1828. It meant “a state of bafflement or perplexity,” a synonym of quandary.

Nonplussed, therefore, means “perplexed.”

But there is a further point of confusion that can send someone to the dictionary: since the mid-20th century, nonplussed has been increasingly used to mean “unimpressed” or “unsurprised,” and this use, though often considered an error, has made the confident deployment of this word a fraught issue for many. So they need to keep checking in the dictionary.

physiotherapist doing healing treatment on mans back

Sometimes words sort of seem to telegraph their meaning: pernicious sounds like a bad thing rather than a good thing, and beatific sounds like something to be desired as opposed to something to be avoided.

This is all fairly subjective, of course, but the sounds of words can have an effect on how we perceive them.

Anodyne doesn’t give us many clues in that way. It turns out that anodyne is a good thing: it means “serving to alleviate pain” or “innocuous,” from the Greek word with similar meanings.

a close-up of a man showing only his eyes and his bushy eyebrows

Some words with five syllables can seem bookish, like orthographical, or scientific, like exteroceptive. Once you hit five syllables, we are entering upon the five-dollar word territory. Supercilious is a five-syllable word used to describe people who are arrogant and haughty or give off a superior attitude. It comes from the Latin word meaning “eyebrow,” and was used in Latin to refer to the expression of arrogant people, and this meaning was transferred to English.

Amusingly, the word supercilious was added to some dictionaries in the 1600s—a time when many Latin words were translated literally into English—with the meanings “pertaining to the eyebrows” or “having great eyebrows.”

This use is now rare enough to raise an eyebrow.

the croupier holds a roulette ball in a casino in his hand

This word has been in the news in recent years, but still has a ring of scientific or legal jargon—sending many people to the dictionary to check its meaning.

In scientific and technical uses, stochastic usually means “involving probability” or “determined by probability,” and is frequently paired with words like demand, model, processing, and volatility. Stochastic comes from the Greek word meaning “skillful at aiming,” which had become a metaphor for “guessing.”

It’s a term that had long been used by mathematicians and statisticians, and has come into more public discourse with stochastic terrorism, the notion that accusations or condemnations of a person or group can lead to violence against that person or group. This allows those who make the initial accusations to seem innocent from any specific violent act, but stochastic terrorism is a way to identify the motives for such an attack as being set in motion by the words of another person.

little baby boy sitting in high chair making funny faces and refusing to eat pumpkin porridge while mother trying to feed him using spoon

Anathema means “something or someone that is strongly disliked” and was initially used to refer to a person who had been excommunicated from the Catholic church. It came from Greek through Latin into English with the meaning of “curse” or “thing devoted to evil,” but today refers to anything that is disapproved of or to be avoided.

There is a strangeness about the way this word is used in a sentence. Because anathema is usually used without an or the, as in “raincoats are anathema to high fashion” or “those ideas are anathema in this class” it may seem just odd enough to send people to the dictionary when they encounter it.

cat with open mouth

Bemused is so close in sound to amused that they have blended together in usage, but they started as very different ideas: bemused originally meant “confused” or “bewildered,” a meaning stemming from the idea of musing or thinking carefully about something, which may be required in order to assess what isn’t easy to understand.

Many people insist that “confused” is still the only correct way to use bemused, but the joining of meanings with amused has resulted in the frequent use of this word to mean “showing wry or tolerant amusement,” a shade of meaning created from the combination.

Words with meanings that seem to crisscross or intersect are sure to send us to the dictionary.

handsome narcissistic proud young man looking at himself in the mirror

Solipsistic is a fancy word that means “extremely egocentric” or “self-referential.” It comes from the Latin roots solus ("alone," the root of sole) and ipse ("self"). As this Latinate fanciness implies, this is a word used in philosophical treatises and debates. The egocentrism of solipsism has to do with the knowledge of the self, or more particularly the theory in philosophy that your own existence is the only thing that is real or that can be known.

Calling an idea or a person solipsistic can be an insult that identifies a very limited and usually self-serving perspective, or it can be a way to isolate one’s perspective in a useful way. It’s a word with an abstract meaning, which is a good reason to check that meaning from time to time.

bunch of yellow rubber ducks in a row

A tautology is a needless or meaningless repetition of words or ideas. It’s a word about words that can be used in academic writing or as a hifalutin way of saying “redundancy,” as in “a beginner who just started learning.”

Since we value both clarity and originality, especially in writing, tautology is a word that usually carries a negative connotation and is used as a way to criticize a poorly formed sentence or a poorly argued position.

young man with binoculars pointing to something in distance

The ability to see clearly is a powerful metaphor for being able to understand something. Being perspicacious means having an ability to notice and understand things that are difficult or not obvious, and it comes from the Latin verb meaning “to see through.”

Perspicacious means “perceptive,” and is often used along with words that have positive connotations like witty, clever, wise, alert, and insightful (another word that uses seeing as a metaphor for understanding).

a senior black woman hiking in nature

Peripatetic means “going from place to place,” and comes from the Greek word that means “to walk.” You can say someone who moves frequently has a “peripatetic existence,” or someone who has changed careers several times has had a “peripatetic professional trajectory.”

The root word “to walk” is usually more of a metaphor in the modern use of this word—it means frequent changes of place, yes, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are wearing out your shoes.

The original use of this word did use “walking” as a more literal image, however: it was a description of the way that the philosopher Aristotle preferred to give lectures to his students while walking back and forth, and the word has subsequently taken on a more metaphorical meaning.