Etymology Usage

We are not bemused

Q: When I was growing up in the Jurassic period, I was taught that “bemused” meant confused. And that’s how I still use it. But everyone else uses it to mean amused. This leaves me bemused. But maybe I’m just a dinosaur who should lighten up and be amused.

A: The two standard dictionaries we consult the most are split on this usage.

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.

[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.’ ”]

But Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) now includes a third meaning: to cause to have feelings of wry or tolerant amusement—a usage also endorsed in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.

We’d like to side with AH, but in this case M-W seems to have its finger on the pulse of the language.

“Bemused” is rarely used in the traditional way these days, and anyone using it that way is almost certain to be misunderstood.

However, we can’t bring ourselves to use it to mean amused. We’d rather retire “bemused” and fill the gap with other words—“puzzled,” “bewildered,” “confused,” and so on.

But before we abandon “bemused,” here’s a little history.

For nearly three centuries, “bemused” has meant confused, muddled, or lost in thought, as in this 1735 couplet from Pope: “Is there a Parson, much bemus’d in beer, / A maudlin Poetess, a rhyming Peer?”

An earlier noun, “muse,” has meant a state of thoughtfulness since about 1500. And the verb “muse,” meaning to be absorbed in thought, has been around since 1340.

Both come from the Old French muser (to ponder or gape in wonder) and have nothing to do with the nine Muses of antiquity.

Interestingly, when “amused” first appeared in the 1600s, it meant to be in a muse— that is, absorbed, preoccupied, or distracted (not all that different from “bemused”).

It wasn’t until the next century that “amused” came to mean entertained, thanks again to our friend Pope. By the early 1800s, the two words had gone their separate ways. “Bemused” meant befuddled or lost in thought, while “amused” meant having fun.

And so things remained until the late 20th century, when newspaper and magazine writers, broadcasters, and Internet pundits started using “bemused” to mean amused.

Why? Our guess is that they were bored with “amused” and thought “bemused” would be more amusing.

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