The past was bemused by all the choices of vodka, which weren’t available to him back in the day. He was nonplussed trying to decide between Absolut, Grey Goose, and Belvedere.
The present stood watching the past, amused that the latter was so confused. Meanwhile, the future was at a table in the corner, praying he’d be bemused by Calliope so he’d be able to finish his epic poem.
Although all of the italicized words above are found in the dictionary, I am continually amazed (or is it bemused) by their widespread misuse and abuse, which can only confuse and sometimes amuse.
Let’s take them down one at a time.
This one’s a bit confusing for two reasons. First, as you can read or listen to here, the original definition of bemuse – to be or make confused, puzzled, or bewildered – was based on a misreading of Alexander Pope’s poems, in which he intended bemuse to mean “to be inspired by or devoted to one of the muses (of art, literature, music, etc.).” Both definitions are correct nowadays.
The second reason for the confusion is that because bemuse sounds so similar to amuse, many people have attached this meaning to it. It really puts me in a nonplus (real word) when I come across bemuse in contemporary literature (especially lite literature and especially that written by semi-professionals), because most of the time I have no idea whether the author means bemuse or amuse.
Unfortunately, the American semi-professionals have won, and bemuse as a synonym of amuse is now accepted by Merriam-Webster. Thankfully, both the Oxford dictionary and the Cambridge dictionary are purists.
Here are some examples of bemuse in a sentence:
- If I believed in the muses, I’d attest that Barbara W. Tuchman was bemused by Clio.
- Debbie’s outburst bemused Donny, and he tried to make sense of it as he was taking the tomatoes out of his hair.
- “It always bemuses me when I see a bunch of people lining up for a gladiator’s autograph,” mused Zeus.
Amuse is to entertain, to occupy one’s attention, “to appeal to the sense of humor of” (quote from Merriam-Webster).
Don’t confuse yourself or your readers: use amuse when you mean amused, and don’t abuse bemuse.
- My son’s antics amused me, until I remembered that he’s 45 years old.
- Can you please amuse your pit bull while my chihuahua is trying to eat her Ken L Ration?
To be bewildered, befuddled, or blurred; or to bewilder, befuddle, or blur.
You might have figured out that confuse is very similar to bemuse; wait till you read the definition of nonplussed. But…
- I’m not going to confuse you by giving you examples of how to use the word confuse in a sentence.
Meaning to be in a quandary, to be perplexed, to be at a loss as to what to do next, to be confused by. You can also use it in the causative sense, i.e., to put [someone] into a quandary.
If you weren’t nonplussed before, no doubt you are now.
How many of you thought nonplussed meant to be unimpressed or calm? It’s that naughty non, which in Latin doesn’t mean non.
- Trying to decide between Harvard and Santa Monica City College left the 12th grader nonplussed.
- The fork in the road nonplussed Mr. Spoon.
- The newlywed was nonplussed by his wife’s tears after he said that her bœuf à la Bourguignonne wasn’t as good as his mother’s (the next night she ordered in from McDonald’s).
Hey, writers: embrace the beauty and diversity of the English language! We have such a rich selection of words to choose from. That’s why it’s so important to understand the subtle differences between words and to use just the right one in any given sentence.
I invite you to explore the nuances of the English language and enjoy using some new and some not-so-new words. This doesn’t mean you need to write pretentiously, as in “Is there an impediment in the thoroughfare?” when you mean “Is the road blocked?” (True story: shoot me an email if you know who said it.)
Above all, have fun; enjoy your craft! And…
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