The Grammarphobia Blog

A bemusing situation

Q: I’m fed up with hearing people misuse the word “bemused.” If you’re “bemused,” you’re puzzled. I feel like shouting every time I hear someone say “bemused” when the intended meaning is obviously amused.

A: Traditionally, “bemused” means puzzled or deep in thought. But I fear that this is a lost cause. Some dictionaries already accept amused as one of the definitions of “bemused.”

The two dictionaries I consult the most are split on this. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) defines the verb “bemuse” in the traditional way: to confuse or cause to be engrossed in thought. But Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) includes a third meaning: to cause to have feelings of tolerant amusement.

The term “bemused” is misused so much these days that I’d recommend avoiding it. If you use it correctly, you’re almost certain to be misunderstood. I don’t find that amusing.

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