The Grammarphobia Blog

Are we defeatists?

Q: You say “bemused” is rarely used in the traditional way and anyone doing it is almost certain to be misunderstood. I think your attitude is defeatist and downright wrong. I just did a Google News search for “bemused” and all the articles used it in the traditional way. Why do language mavens blithely accept the skunking of words, depriving us of useful nuances and handing unwanted victory to the ignorant?

A: We too are not amused by the use of “bemuse” to mean amuse, and you won’t see it in our writing. We prefer the traditional sense: to confuse, bewilder, or cause to be engrossed in thought.

But whether we like it or not, the newer usage has been adopted as standard English by Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

As we said in the posting you consider defeatist, the M-W entry for the verb “bemuse” includes among its meanings “to cause to have feelings of wry or tolerant amusement.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) still adheres to the traditional definition, but we’ll be interested to see what the fifth edition says when it’s released soon.

[A 2012 update: The fifth edition of American Heritage sticks to its guns. It includes a usage note that reads, “The word bemused is sometimes used to mean ‘amused, especially when finding something wryly funny,’ as in The stream of jokes from the comedian left the audience bemused, with some breaking out into guffaws. Most of the Usage Panel does not like this usage, with 78 percent rejecting this sentence in our 2005 survey. By contrast, 84 percent accepted a sentence in which bemused means ‘confused.’ ”]

You make a good point, though. We also did a Google News search and found that “bemused” seemed to be overwhelmingly used the traditional way by news organizations.

So, yes, copy editors have generally managed to stem the tide of language change at many news organizations.

But it’s another story in the real world—the one without copy editors to keep us in line. As Bryan A. Garner writes in Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.), “many writers mistakenly use bemuse as a synonym for amuse.”

One of the examples of the misuse he gives is from a review of a musical in the Chicago Tribune: “The show has a quirky humor that will bemuse jaded adults and even manages to touch some deeper chords without descending to the saccharine.”

But let’s hope you’re right and we’re too pessimistic about the fate of “bemuse.” We’d love to be proved wrong. And Garner doesn’t include it among his list of skunked terms or candidates for skunkdom.

Nevertheless, it’s the job of language commentators to observe shifts in common usage, and to report when those shifts are recognized by lexicographers as evidence that the language has changed. We wrote a posting earlier this year on our changing language.

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