Amused vs Bemused

The English words amused and bemused are confused by some native English speakers.

Amused

Amused means entertained or made to laugh.

I was amused by his antics

Do you think she was amused?

I am not amused

The noun amusement refers either to the state of being amused or to something that amuses.

His obvious amusement pleased me

What amusements do you have planned for the party?

 
Bemused

Bemused means to find something confusing or puzzling.

I was bemused by his sudden decision to quit

You look bemused; should I repeat the question?

Bemused, he asked me to explain

The noun bemusement means confusion or puzzlement.

He stared at me in bemusement

I shook my head in bemusement

 
The Bottom Line

I’m sure the confusion between amused and bemused comes out of the fact bemused is less common and so when people hear it for the first time, they notice the similarity to amused and think the two words must have a similar meaning. In fact, amused and bemused mean two completely different things.

Just remember that you are amused at an amusement park (like Great America or Disneyland), and you are bemused when you don’t understand.

The misuse of bemused is so common in writing that I often have to read the sentence several times in order to determine whether the person really meant bemused (confused) or amused (entertained). I remember one author who consistently said bemused to mean "slightly amused." I didn’t find it even slightly amusing. :-)

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13 comments for “Amused vs Bemused

  1. SF
    4 March 2014 at 11:09 pm

    THANK YOU! I see this error at least once a week; so often that I occasionally grab the dictionary to make sure it still has the same definition. Now, if you can convince people that “penultimate” doesn’t mean something to the effect of “super-ultimate”, then I’ll be all the more grateful…I mean, what can be more than ultimate?

  2. paul
    20 March 2014 at 3:35 pm

    According to the dictionary, your claim that ” In fact, amused and bemused mean two completely different things.” is off base.

    Merriam Webster online gives the third definition of “bemuse” as ” to cause to have feelings of wry or tolerant amusement ”

    So it looks like your distinction between “amuse” and “bemuse” is overstated. One has to include all the uses of a term if one is going to make claims about meanings, and shades of meanings. :)

    • lkl
      20 March 2014 at 6:23 pm

      Thanks for your comment. Dictionaries sometimes make mistakes, as Merriam-Webster did here, perhaps due to the widespread misuse of “bemused” by Americans. None of these six dictionaries has anything resembling that meaning:

      http://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/bemused
      http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/bemused
      http://www.thefreedictionary.com/bemused
      http://www.vocabulary.com/dictionary/bemused
      http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/bemuse?q=bemused
      http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/american_english/bemuse

      The American Heritage does offer the 3rd meaning, but with a caveat:

      “The word bemused is sometimes used to mean ‘amused, especially when finding something wryly funny,’ as in The stream of jokes from the comedian left the audience bemused, with some breaking out into guffaws. Most of the Usage Panel does not like this usage, with 78 percent rejecting this sentence in our 2005 survey. By contrast, 84 percent accepted a sentence in which bemused means ‘confused.’ ”
      http://ahdictionary.com/word/search.html?q=bemused

      • paul
        30 April 2014 at 12:48 pm

        Dictionaries sometimes make mistakes, but bloggers make a hell of a lot more of them. You’re simply claiming the editors of Merriam-Webster have made a mistake, which is not evidence that they’ve made a mistake. And the fact that some people still remember the fact that ‘bemused’ is sometimes used to mean “amused” in the cited sense shows that you cannot claim that “amused” and “bemused” mean two “completely different things,” and even less so that using it to mean “amused” in certain contexts is a misuse. Even by your own research, you’ve found that there is more than one accepted meaning.

        There’s a difference between there being only one meaning, and there being a more common meaning, which is clearly what we have here.

        Clearly there’s a more common meaning, but there should be little doubt by now that your claim was indeed overstated.

        • lkl
          1 May 2014 at 6:33 am

          I’ll repeat part of the American Heritage passage I quoted above: “Most of the Usage Panel does not like this usage, with 78 percent rejecting this sentence in our 2005 survey.” That’s a lot of people objecting to a supposedly acceptable meaning. You can dismiss me as just a blogger, but you can’t dismiss that 78%, plus the six dictionaries that confirm my statement.

          Here are a few other points of view:

          http://www.cjr.org/language_corner/bemusement_park.php
          http://www.grammarphobia.com/blog/2011/07/bemused.html
          https://www.visualthesaurus.com/cm/wordroutes/perplexed-by-nonplussed-and-bemused/

          • paul
            2 May 2014 at 3:22 pm

            So what if 78% of some random panel “does not like this usage.” What does that prove? Maybe they don’t read much literature, in which the less common meaning is used. Who knows. Further 22% apparently do not mind this usage. Maybe they’re the more educated fraction of the panel. Again, who knows. Either way, the validity of the contested meaning is not decided by the majority vote of your cited panel.

            I’m not “dismissing” you as a mere blogger (even though that’s what you are), simply pointing out that you have no authority to claim that Merriam Webster has made a mistake. Between the two of you, I’ll take Webster. If dictionaries some (or even one, I’m not going to go hunting for more) include the contested meaning and some do not, that’s all that’s needed to prove you overstated. The meaning is, at the least, in dispute, and therefore your claim about “completely different” is simply not established.

            Now It’s my turn to repeat myself: you’re apparently not grasping the distinction between more or less common meanings, and no meaning at all. The older, less common meaning of “bemused” may be on the way out, I don’t know, but it ain’t there yet.

          • lkl
            3 May 2014 at 6:06 am

            “The Usage Panel is a group of nearly 200 prominent scholars, creative writers, journalists, diplomats, and others in occupations requiring mastery of language. The Panelists are surveyed annually to gauge the acceptability of particular usages and grammatical constructions.” http://www.ahdictionary.com/word/usagepanel.html

            We’ll just have to agree to disagree. You’ve made your case, your comments will be seen by everyone who reads this lesson, and they can decide for themselves.

  3. Clark
    21 March 2014 at 10:54 am

    Is it possible that bemused is uncommon because it defines a very specific feeling between amused and confused? For example, people normally wouldn’t like to be confused, but if they found something slightly pleasant or entertaining yet couldn’t understand it, then bemused might be the perfect term. For example, a foreigner might be bemused by an exotic ritual.

    Coincidentally (?), bemused falls between amused and confused alphabetically :-)

  4. Zorn
    23 March 2014 at 10:02 pm

    I think a great deal of the confusion–or, if you prefer, the bemusement–lies in that wry humour frequently (or possibly necessarily) points out the absurdity of a gesture; an absurdity which is likely to cause bemusement. While “amuse” and “bemuse” have different meanings, “bemused” can almost always be replaced by “amused” without changing the overall tone of the sentence. For example: “Tom was bemused by his neighbour’s curious habit of juggling geese on the lawn every day” has a different but not altogether dissimilar meaning to “Tom was amused by his neighbour’s curious habit of juggling geese on the lawn every day”, and if one is true it is likely that the other is as well. “Tom was annoyed by his neighbour’s curious habit of juggling geese on the lawn every day”, however, is much more contrasting.

  5. Georgia
    25 May 2014 at 7:50 am

    The New York Times supports your view (that the MW dictionary is providing an incorrect definition, or perhaps it is taking a leaf out of the Oxford’s book and citing cases based on popular use rather than correct use): http://afterdeadline.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/11/10/bemused-bewildering/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

  6. Dom Sequitur
    27 May 2014 at 12:13 am

    Personally, this is how I understood the word. I like the connotation, especially when the need for such a word exists all too often. As I am a fan of both language preservation and language evolution, I prefer the use of a word that has greater practical use for common parlance of over academic purity. I am glad to know how words are traditionally used, however, for flexibility in vocabulary.

  7. jon reeve
    23 June 2014 at 9:44 am

    Thanks for this. There are writer aid blogs that internet-publish misleading or incorrect information. Language evolves and misuse can eventually become the only or main use and therefore the only or main meaning known. So, in the future, this common misuse of bemuse may be termed correct. Until then, thank you again for your efforts to help the english language retain some structure and consistency.

  8. Hakon
    22 August 2014 at 6:45 pm

    As has been the academical consensus for at least a few decades now, the purpose of grammar and word definitions is first and foremost to describe use rather than prescribe use, the fact that “bemused” is used to mean “slightly amused” means that the word, consequently, does carry that meaning. In fact, I think most uses I’ve seen or heard of it were intended to mean exactly that. Language evolves. Errors become correct through frequency of use. It’s a sometime annoying fact of life.

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