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.