We Are Not Amused — Or Are We?

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I dare say Queen Victoria of England would be bemused by modern English in all its forms—British, American, Australian, Indian…. After all, language changes. That is fact. If language didn’t change, we’d have no problem communicating. Why not? Because we’d all still be speaking a single language. As to whether the queen would be amused, well, isn’t that all together another beast?

What Made Me Ask?

I got to thinking about bemusement while reading a novel—one of seven so far in a series—by an indie author. I’ve read all seven books. I enjoy them all. But one of the author’s characters used “bemusement” in a way that I wouldn’t. So what am I getting at, you ask? Consider the following:

Jenny passed a third wine glass to John, batting her eyes and smiling softly as she did. John accepted the offering, a bemused expression flitting across his face. He raised the glass in a salute and tossed back the rich Cabernet, wondering too late _________________.

To your mind, which of the following phrases best “shows” John’s bemusement?

There’s quite a difference between the three options, don’t you think? So, please, do take the poll and share your thoughts in the comments! But even before we see your replies, I’m betting all might be chosen. Because it’s all in our definition of bemusement.

My Bemused State Of Mind

I’m old school in some ways. My definition of the verb “bemuse” is that of my old 1981 Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary: 1) to make confused : bewilder; 2) to cause to become lost in thought.

Based on that primary meaning, I would choose the first option. John is confused by his sister’s seeming generosity. That is the oldest and most traditional meaning of the word. Some of you might have opted for the third option, which is a long-standing secondary meaning of bemuse.

But do you remember that bit at the beginning of this post about language changing? Bemuse is a good example. If you look at the modern online Merriam-Webster.com website, things have changed. While “to make confused” is still the primary meaning, and “to occupy the attention of : distract, absorb” is secondary, a third meaning has arisen: “to cause to have feelings of wry or tolerant amusement.”

Yep, there you have the second option of the poll. And I’ll bet some of you chose that answer. There’s a nice positive start to the day—all choices are correct. There was no wrong answer. 🙂

And yet, multiple correct answers can lead to confusion. Are writers always clear about which meaning they intend? Do they always recognize that a “correct” word might not be the best choice? Well, in the novel that led to this post, the answer is “No.”

In that book, two spouses are talking at the breakfast table. No unexpected behavior or confusing words come from the husband. His wife is not distracted or absorbed by anything. She is, however, clearly amused by something he did. The author chose to describe her as bemused—opening the door to confusion on the part of old-school readers like me and those holding to the “distracted/absorbed” meaning. Even those defining bemuse in terms of “wry or tolerant amusement” could quibble because the sense used in the book was simply an equal exchange for “amuse.” There was no indication of that amusement being “wry” or “tolerant.”

Had the author used “amused” rather than “bemused,” no reader would be confused or tripped up as I was. The author also could have done what I did in the poll—add a “showing” sentence to make it clear which definition of bemused was intended. A little thing, yes, but the best writers pay attention to those details, smoothing the read for their audience.

Just a little bemusement on a Tuesday morning from someone who had fun being distracted by the ever-changing English language and the confusion it sometimes brings. Are there other words that trigger similar reactions for you?

39 thoughts on “We Are Not Amused — Or Are We?

  1. I chose the first option because I’m a bit of a pedant – and it made me laugh!

    The changed use of “literal” often makes me smile, but also irritates me as there is no succinct replacement when I wish to be literal in the old sense.

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    • It was fun coming up with examples, although not as easy as I might’ve liked. 😉 And I completely agree with you about “literal.” I literally had the word in mind when I asked that question at the end!

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  2. I really enjoyed your examples, JM, especially since they clarify a bit more for each definition what could be meant by that “bemusement” used. I do often insert that second, adapted use of “bemuse” in my own writing, but I find I need to supplement it with an example, such as you did. (And, I’m a bit ashamed to realize I almost invariably use “wry” in conjunction with it in such cases!)

    I appreciate the changes that our language has made over time, especially as it’s created interesting ways to differentiate between native speakers from across the globe. But, like all things, the evolution of language comes with its price. There is a low-level movement among younger writers, for example, to break down the barriers of “proper” speech, grammar, and punctuation because they consider it a form of classism. What I worry so many of them aren’t grasping when they’re corrected on the “proper” use of a word or phrase, though, is that their intent is being muddled, thus causing any value in their critical argument to falter.

    Thank goodness we’ve grown out of the generation who was so confused by Alanis Morissette’s use of “ironic.” Also: the “Thesaurus” option in Word and its ilk is deadly. 🙂

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    • In simple terms, the purpose of language is to communicate. But I suspect humans have always tried to keep some types of language “for certain ears only” and exclude others from the conversation. And so codes arise—be it a group of people from one place or a subpopulation of a group like teenagers. Words are given different meanings by one group as a means of establishing a specific identity, only to become “normal” over time or to disappear within the lifetimes of those who thought their words to be so special so many years ago. Plenty of research topics for linguists for generations to come! 🙂

      Among writers, we’re going to see so many different styles of word usage, not only between genres, but within them. My view as a reader, though, is “If I’m your target audience, make sure I know what you’re saying!” So while those younger writers who are “breaking” the grammar and language rules may not care what I think, they should be careful that their desired group “gets it.”

      I’m glad you enjoyed the examples!

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  3. Hi JM. Mostly I prefer the author to describe the feeling rather than using a word to describe the emotion. I’m not sure I understand what bemused looks like on a face. Maybe lip curled in one corner? A nose scrunch? I don’t know, but that has nothing to do with the changing of the English language. However, since language is changing, something of a facial expression might be better used than a reader having to guess which meaning of ‘bemuse’ the author is using.

    Thanks for the interesting post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah yes, you’ve raised the specter of individual reader preference in how to use those words across a written work. Some readers prefer more descriptive imagery, which makes for a longer read. Others like a crisper, quicker read and prefer more direct phrases to keep the momentum going and let them form their own impressions about the characters and action. There’s a whole other post!

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  4. I didn’t realize “bemuse” can mean all of those things! I like changing up the vocab when I’m writing, but I try to remember that those words with varied meanings are best to be avoided unless I can be crystal clear in its use. I’ll have to add “bemuse” to my list of words to take extra care with! Neat post — and good job with your definitions too!

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    • Thanks, Kate! I was hoping people would find the examples to be illustrative rather than confusing/bemusing/amusing. 😉 So far most votes are for the “confused” aspect of the word, but all three choices have their supporters. Like you, I enjoy mixing up the vocabulary. But it is hard to ensure we’re getting our intended meaning across!

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  5. Very interesting. I didn’t think that “bemusement” was consistent with such serious thoughts as possibly having been poisoned. It’s always easier to edit than to compose, but I’d re-write it as: “…a look of bemusement crossed his face as he accepted the glass. His sister wasn’t usually so generous. As he tossed back the wine, he wondered belatedly whether he should have brought the antidote to her favorite poison.”

    Of course, that doesn’t fit into your nice set of three alternative endings, so of course it’s not fair.

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    • When you take that primary definition, the first choice does fit. Not that I would necessarily use “bemuse” in such a set up in my real writing. And I was going for symmetry in the choices. 😉 Ultimately, no matter how carefully we choose our words and do our best to avoid any confusion on the reader’s part, something will always slip in!

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  6. I picked the first option too. I didn’t realize the definition of ‘bemused’ had shifted over the years, but I think many people think it means ‘amused.’ And why not? The two words are so similar. ‘Bemused’ is another one of those words we see a lot in fiction, but rarely do people actually say it. Unless they’re a Frasier Crane like me. (Though I don’t think I’ve ever said ‘bemused’ in conversation.)

    Great post, JM. Nice to see one from you!

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    • Bemuse and amuse are so similar. As are bemuse and muse, which both share an element of “deeper thought.” I can see where the additional meanings of bemuse crept in over time from that primary definition. I suppose someone like Hemingway might have argued this is why we should use simple, direct language. But I’m all for a bit more variation and nuance in writing—just as long as we’re careful to be clear about our meaning as best we can.

      I’m pretty darn sure I have used bemused in conversation on more than one occasion. 🙂

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  7. I love words that no one uses. I used the term “sinewy” in a scene and someone in my writer’s group said she thought the word was overused. I don’t ever say but I like it and it brings a powerful image to mind, don’t you think? I don’t ever say bemused but I think of it as someone being puzzled, albeit in an amusing sort of way. I chose #2 for that reason because it seemed to best suggest that.

    I also love the term vis-à-vis, though I never use that and I really want to. There are so many cool words out there and letting characters use them are so much fun. Great post, JM and it’s so great to see you again. Hope you and yours are fantastic.

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    • You know, I think there’s a reason some words gain a reputation of being “overused.” And the reason is exactly what you describe with sinewy—they’re powerful, clear images to a large group. They’re damn effective! And sometimes, that’s exactly what we need to show in our written words. Of course, I’m also fond of popping in a few less common words and making the meaning clear to readers by the surrounding context. Alas, “skimmers” might miss the context, and there’s a risk of pulling some readers out of the story. But if I stick to basic English words and structure à la Hemingway, I’ll bore a whole other set of readers. Writing can be a real Catch-22. 😉

      The blogging Muse has not been visiting me much for a while, and the creative well seems dry as I find myself doing other things. I’m hoping to fix that! Hope spring is making its way to you and yours!

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  8. I didn’t know bemused had developed another meaning! I still use it or read it as being confused. It’s interesting to think about how the words we use, which are so obvious to us, might have a completely different meaning to the reader.

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    • Maybe the additional meaning is limited to American English? I should have checked an “English English” dictionary—that might have added even more to the post! Looking at the (very limited) poll results, it’s almost an even split between the three options. To me, this suggests I should be careful about using the word in any of my novels!

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  9. Fine post about babble. It’s a wonder humans can communicate ideas at all. Language is constantly changing which is another reason writers need to get out and wander around people and places in order to keep current.
    Writers. Authors. Wordsmiths. Seems like writing is getting ideas down only to go back and carefully crafting words and phrases to fit, sound, and say the exact thought intended. Authors seem to excel in that.

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    • I’m sure it will be a fascinating subject for future linguists to see how our instant global communication impacted the rate and nature of language change (and extinction). In the 1920s, there were still a few native French-speaking communities in Illinois, in the rural areas across from St. Louis. They switched to English only with the spread of radio. Now we have the Internet, and once-isolated communities are becoming ever-more linked to the wider world and losing their native languages. Maybe there’s a bright side—maybe the various English dialects, for example, will become more similar again. Of course, then we lose some wonderful old local flavor.

      One caution I keep hearing for writers is to avoid using language that’s “too current” and likely to fade away within a few years. Those words can really date a novel and cause it to lose readers in the future. Even descriptions of “cutting edge” technology sound old-fashioned in a few years! Every now and again I pick up a book from the 1990s and early 2000s, and the discussions of cell phones and computers brings a smile to my face. 😉

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      • We have local pockets of people speaking languages from “the old countries” but not quite as many with tv signals now bounced off satellites/cable in bad reception areas along with the internet. Even when I was a child German was the language school was taught in some places in Central TX – along with Spanish in other. I find differing regional pronunciations/meanings fascinating – but these days people are so touchy and so quick to jump to conclusions/misunderstand and take offense. People need to take a deep breath and lighten up.
        You are right about trendy can date things quickly – funny that was a serious “rule” new writers were cautioned about years and years ago. Must be solid advice!

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    • Thanks, Carol! I was a bit surprised to see all three answers getting a similar number of votes. I love the word, but this is making me think I need to be extremely careful about how I use it in a story. 🙂

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  10. I’m bemused with your post. It’s wonderful! But I’m not just ‘amused’ by it; I’m also puzzled by the word and fascinated that you chose it to teach us about language. I just finished a novel by JoJo Moyes (After You), and her male character was bemused several times. And I couldn’t figure out what that meant. Was it a good thing or a bad thing, that he was bemused? I used to think bemusement was like befuddled amusement, but in Moyes case, the character was worriedly amused. Ahhh, the English language!

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    • I’m willing to bet other readers were as “confused” as you were by the use of bemuse. The poll results (okay, very small sample!) show very similar responses for the choices. So there may be a lot of writers out there who might be generating impressions different from what they intended. If our characters are meant to be feeling “serious” emotions, do we want the reader interpreting them as amused instead? Now that would pull me out of the story!

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  11. I read this post last week and thought I had commented but obviously not! (I was just visiting your site because I wanted to link to you on today’s post). I think I was reading this post on the train actually so it might be that I submitted a comment just as we entered a tunnel or something and it got lost! Anyway, I think I was saying something along the lines of often being surprised, bemused even 🙂 when I discover that the meaning of a word has evolved and I hadn’t realised. I did a post about that a while back you might remember where I expressed surprise at my discovery that it is now perfectly legitimate to use the word literally for things that aren’t literal – like “My head literally exploded!” apparently that’s perfectly fine to say now and we’re not allowed to scoff at people who do.

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    • Ah, the mysteries of wireless communication! 😉

      That completely backwards meaning of “literally” throws me for a loop, too. It’s like the line in “Alice in Wonderland” where one of the characters says something along the lines “a word means what I mean it to mean.” If we all go about with that attitude toward language, however will we all be able to communicate?! 🙂

      Thank you for the link to your post—I will visit it soon. Why has everything gotten so busy lately? Argh!

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  13. I am bemused as to why Jenny is batting her eyelids at her brother! Is their relationship closer than the norm? The English language is a wonderful paradox 😀

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  14. Sometimes I have to look up a word choice because I’d swear I’m right, but either I’m not or there are multiple meanings like this one. 🙂 I was talking to a French friend and she was telling me about the time she went to a hotel and asked for a “free room” and the guy at the front desk told her she had to pay. Clearly he didn’t know the other meaning of free was “available.” 🙂

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    • That use of “free” is a perfect example of ambiguity in so many English words! And when we cross borders, the situation gets even murkier. Like the Scots using “I doubt….” not only as we do in the States but also to mean “I suspect….” Talk about the potential for a comedy of errors! 🙂 Ah, language is a slippery thing and not to be taken too lightly. 😉

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      • I didn’t know that about the Scots. That would get terribly confusing. But it would be fun to have the characters misunderstanding and see where it led the conversation. 🙂

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