Bewitched and Bothered by 'Bemused'

Rob Kyff on

Jim Bond of Canton, Conn., recently wrote to ask about the shifting meanings of "bemused." Indeed, this word seems to change colors more often than a chameleon on plaid.

Sometimes "bemused" denotes bewilderment. Ian Bremmer, for instance, told the Washington Post that witnesses to a meeting between President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin were "bemused, nonplussed, befuddled."

Sometimes it suggests contemplation. Washington Post writer David Lehman noted that the poems of Molly Peacock "range from high-spirited whimsy ... to bemused reflection."

And sometimes it indicates wry amusement. "When evacuees from Florida expressed shock at sky-high air fares for last-minute trips," reported the Atlanta Constitution, "some frequent business travelers reacted with knowing bemusement."

This linguistic muddle began with a "brew"haha. In one of the word's first uses in print, the poet Alexander Pope wrote in 1735 of "a parson much bemus'd in beer."

Because Pope's line seems to suggest that beer had confused the mind of the good parson, grammarians decreed that "bemused" meant "confused," which remained its sole definition for more than a century.

But as the 1900s dawned, people began extending the meaning of "bemused" to include "thoughtful, contemplative." Some linguists validated this meaning by suggesting that, in using "bemused," Pope meant that the parson, instead of being befuddled by alcohol, had instead been communing with the Muses.

Merriam-Webster's Second New International Dictionary, published in 1950, shows evidence of this transition. Its definition for "bemused" adds a meditative twist: "dazed"; also, "absorbed, musing."


And once you've got people musing over beers, it doesn't take long for them to start looking at life with a sense of detached and tolerant amusement. And that's the third meaning of "bemused," which has emerged during the past 60 years.

Merriam-Webster's online dictionary currently includes all three meanings for "bemused": 1. marked by confusion, dazed 2. lost in thought or reverie 3. having or showing feelings of wry amusement especially from something that is surprising or perplexing.

Bemused? Me too. Here's a handy solution: When you want to denote puzzlement or thoughtfulness, skip "bemused" altogether and use "confused" or "meditative," respectively.

Save "bemused" for people with that knowing, Mona Lisa smile.


Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Conn., invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via e-mail to or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Copyright 2017 Creators Syndicate Inc.


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