Bemused and Presume

Two words frequently pop up and make me wonder.

Let’s start with Presume, as in “presumed innocent.”

To me, strictly speaking, presume means that even though you lack all the facts, you have a high confidence that you’re right. “Doctor Livingstone, I presume,” meant that there weren’t a whole lot of white folks around, and the man in front of him was almost definitely the guy he’d been looking for.

This is in contrast to “assume,” which is when you have a lot less confidence. Like, you assume something for the sake of argument.

But no one really pays attention to that distinction, do they? I personally just always use “assume” (except in old phrases, like “presumed innocent”), and I guess some people always use “presume.”

To my ear, “presume” smacks of pretension, but maybe in some places it’s as common as dirt. Then again, I’m pretty sure I’d choke if someone said that we should presume something for the sake of argument.

Nothing to say here, really, except that I notice it, and always wonder why someone chooses presume over assume. Are they trying to sound smart, or is it just a legitimate modern use that I don’t happen to follow?

Next is Bemused.

To be bemused means to be puzzled or confused. Today I read the following in a pretty well-respected lit magazine:

“…my boss added, with a bemused grin, ‘She’s going to the library.'”

Now, you may think that the bit before the ellipsis would clear up the whole thing, but I promise that it doesn’t. The boss knew that she was going to the library and knew why.

I sat around trying to figure out what a bemused grin looks like and couldn’t quite swing it. So, does the author mean “amused,” maybe? Or did she really mean bemused, but in some weird way that I don’t understand?

This happens to me almost every time I see the word. I usually have to stop and ask myself whether the person really meant amused. Is that what’s happening? I don’t even know. As opposed to most other words that get misused, I honestly don’t even know how people are using the word.

Like, the quote above. Maybe the author meant something ELSE. Not amused, not bemused, but a third thing. I don’t know.

But in any case, IF she meant “amused,” then why write “bemused”? Again, is it a case of trying to sound smarter than if she had said the more common word, or did that author just grow up using bemused that way?

UPDATE: I wrote to Merriam-Webster and got an answer.

3 Responses to “Bemused and Presume”

  1. October 18, 2007 at 9:49 am #

    I’ve understood bemused to be more than just puzzled, but puzzled with an undertone of meaning that incorporates amusement, like you find it funny in a confusing way. Let me see if I can back that up…

    Okay, here, def #3 from Merriam Webster:
    to cause to have feelings of wry or tolerant amusement

    I can’t tell for sure that your example does or does not fit that usage.

    For presume, I’m probably off base on this, but I’ve always differentiated presume and assume on the basis of action. You presume to do something, but you assume something. It doesn’t fit the Dr. Livingstone usage, or the presumed innocent usage, so maybe I just made up the difference.

  2. October 18, 2007 at 10:23 am #

    Wow, I don’t use the regular Merriam Webster. I use the UNABRIDGED version online. And the unabridged version doesn’t have that 3rd definition! Thanks for finding that, Kevin.

    The OED doesn’t have it either. Neither does Random House or American Heritage.

    Therefore, here’s what I’m assuming: Bemuse, from time immemorial, meant confuse or bewilder. Not amuse.

    Due to confusion of the general population, people started to use it to mean amuse. Merriam-Webster, always the first major dictionary to pick up modern usage, popped it in its dictionary, but hasn’t yet updated the unabridged version.

    The other dictionaries don’t yet agree that it’s legit.

    At least that lets me know that the person I posted about probably did mean amuse.


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