Now, I'm bemused

Word meanings change rapidly, and I've decided to update this post on the meaning of the word bemused. Originally, it was posted on 7/12/12.

One of my favorite lines in The Princess Bride is when Inigo Montoya says to Vizzini, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”  There are a more than a couple of words in the English language that, in my opinion at least, get misused so much they’ve lost the impact of their original meaning.

One of those words is “anxious” as in “I’m anxious to meet you.” I hear people say that all the time, and my guess is that they really mean they are eager to meet the other person. If you look anxious up in a thesaurus, eager does come up as a synonym, but I never thought it was a very good one. To me, it connotes a certain amount of trepidation about the meeting, and I’m sure that’s not what the speaker is trying to convey. 

The other word I run across all the time in historical romances is “bemused.” It’s increasingly being used as a synonym for “amused.” I’ve even done it myself in some of my drafts.
Alexander Pope

I ran across it again just recently in a novel written by an awesome author, and asked my husband what he thought it meant. He suggested “befuddled.” That’s pretty close to the way I think of it too. To be fair, my thesaurus does not list “amused” as a synonym, but when he looked it up on his app, his did – although not as a primary synonym.

Update: Looking bemused up in Merriam Webster's online dictionary gives both meanings:
to cause (someone) to be confused and often also somewhat amused.

If you ask me, this word loses some of its punch when you try to have it both ways. Call me an originalist, but I like to rely on the origin of a word for the actual meaning.

According to Grammar Girl, the origin of bemused date back to the 18th century when Alexander Pope described someone who had too much to drink as “finding a muse in his beer.” provides a similar although somewhat less amusing (or bemusing?) story. I suppose to know the meaning of the word for certain, we'd have to know whether he found the fellow amusing or just annoying.


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