Bemusement Park

It's not amusing when writers misuse "bemused"

Here’s the lede on one article about the final presidential candidates’ debate:

“Calmly swatting away John McCain’s aggression in their last debate the other night, Barack Obama repeatedly flashed his beautiful smile—that silky version of the Palin wink—confidently signaling voters that he was bemused but never threatened.”

Another article on the debate said, “At numerous points, Obama shrugged off McCain’s attacks with a bemused smile.”

If the last six months of Nexis citations are any guide, more than half the people reading this think, as the above writers did, that “bemused” means something like “amused.” But it doesn’t. Unless Obama was “confused,” or “muddled,” or “puzzled,” he was not “bemused.”

Of all the major dictionaries, only Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines “bemused” as “to cause to have feelings of wry or tolerant amusement,” and that definition is its third, meaning it is the least used or most recently recognized. All the other dictionaries and usage guides maintain that “bemuse” suggests a frown or furrowed brow, not a smile. A few dictionaries also define “bemused” as “to cause to be engrossed in thought.”

What has happened to “bemuse” has happened to a lot of other words: A perfectly good English word that means one thing is co-opted by people who think it means something else. Take “discrete,” for example, which is often misused to mean “discreet.” (“Discrete” means “separate” or “distinct.” Use it with discretion.) Usually, the incorrectly used word sounds like the word that is really wanted. It’s amusing, really, but it’s also “bemusing,” because a perfectly good word already existed. In some cases, a writer might use the wrong word in the belief that it is “more intellectual,” in which case the writer may “bemuse” readers who know better.

Here’s one ambiguous example, from an article on a federal appeals court hearing arguments in a tobacco settlement case: “‘So you want us to enforce the decree not based on what it says but what it “meant,”’ responded a bemused Judge David S. Tatel, a Clinton appointee who has sided with the government in tobacco cases.”

Was the judge puzzled? Or was he being sarcastic, and thus wryly amused?

But here’s one article, accompanying a recipe for empanadas, where “bemused” is unambiguously used correctly: “I’m a little bemused because the directions say the filling should be a bit spicy, but the recipe calls for just salt, black pepper and white pepper. I suppose the peppers give it a bit of kick.”

We were not “bemused.”

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.