English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

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: Most of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult agree with you, but three of them now include amused as well as confused as standard meanings for “bemused.”

Merriam-Webster has three senses: (1) marked by confusion or bewilderment; (2) lost in thought or reverie, and (3) having or showing feelings of wry amusement especially from something that is surprising or perplexing.”

Merriam-Webster Unabridged and, based on The Random House Unabridged Dictionary, have similar definitions. American Heritage includes the amused sense, but labels it a “usage problem.”

We’d like to side with American Heritage, but Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster Unabridged, and seem to have their fingers on the pulse of the language.

Our sense, like yours, is that “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 the subject, 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.

[This post was updated on Feb. 18, 2022.]

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