06 December 2023

Courting the B Muse

Last month I took a deep dive into linguistics.  I'm back in the same waters today.

Back in 2013 I wrote a novella about a beat poet detective named Delgardo.  After it appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine I put up an e-version on Amazon, courtesy of James Lincoln Warren who was kind enough to prepare the text for me, and create the cover.

Last year AHMM published the sequel and I have been thinking about creating a similar e-text.  I was reading it over and I came across this sentence:

The poet shook his head, looking bemused.  

And it occurred to me to ask: what exactly does bemused mean? 

I wasn't sure and that bugged me.  Here I quote a different story I wrote, about mystery writer Shanks:

Discovering he was using a word he couldn’t define annoyed him, like a carpenter opening his tool box and finding a gadget he didn’t recognize.  

And I had not only used the word, but had it published.  

I thought it meant: mildly amused and surprised.  But what did the dictionary say?  Glad you asked.  

Merriam-Webster gives three meanings: 

1. marked by confusion or bewilderment

2. lost in thought or reverie

3. having or showing feelings of wry amusement especially from something that is surprising or perplexing

(Ahem... Is from the word they want in definition 3?  I would have used because of.) 

Clearly, #3 is what was in my head. I checked my 1961 copy of Webster's Third International Dictionary (the one Nero Wolfe so despised he burned it in his fireplace). #3 is completely missing, so apparently the lexicographers only acknowledged it in the last half century.

Jumping back to the Merriam-Webster website I found something interesting by looking up bemuse (without the d).    It provided this helpful note:

Many people link bemused with amused, believing that the former word carries the meaning “amused, with a touch of something else.” While this was not its original sense, bemused has been used in such a fashion for long enough, and by enough people, that the meaning “having feelings of wry amusement especially from something that is surprising or perplexing" has become established. You may use bemuse in this fashion if you wish, but bear in mind that some people find it objectionable, insisting that bemused and amused are entirely distinct and that bemused properly means “marked by confusion or bewilderment.”

I went to the Oxford English Dictionary and discovered that they only list two meanings (under bemuse):

1. To make utterly confused or muddled, as with intoxicating liquor; to put into a stupid stare, to stupefy.

2.  Humorously, To devote entirely to the Muses.

So the OED doesn't even recognize "lost in thought." 

 Intrigued, I went to Facebook and asked people to define bemused without checking any sources.  I promptly received 30  responses. Their definitions fell into three main categories:

CONFUSED: confused, puzzled, bewildered, quizzical.

AMUSED: Amused, entertained by an odd event, gently amusingly surprised.

BOTH: Confused and slightly intrigued, pleasantly puzzled, taken aback and amused by it.

My friend Peter Rozovsky, who is a copy editor (and excellent photographer... that picture of me above is his work) is firmly in the "confused" camp and he wrote: 

That so many people get this wrong is an interesting sociolinguistic phenomenon. An error repeated often and widely enough becomes correct, with the intermediate step of usage notes in dictionaries that the word in question "is regarded by many as substandard, but..." The elimination of copy editing by newspapers (and, from what I hear, its downgrading by book publishers) only accelerates "language change." And if you find this troubling, go have a lie- down on your chaise longue.

I would suggest that Peter was surprised and mildly amused by the comments.  Too bad we don't have a word for that.



  1. Enormity is another word that, because of misuse, is taking on a new meaning. And of course there are dozens of others. Language change is inevitable. The best we writers can do is to be precise, and slow the process.
    Edward Lodi

  2. I am beside myself, totally befuddled.

  3. I am staunchly in the Oxford camp. Bewildered by the confusion. But then, I'm easily confused.

  4. If you are confused about confusion is that metaconfusion? Thanks for the comments.


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