Bemused Again

In my post about “bemused,” Kevin left a comment that made me wonder about the word, and how the abridged MW had a definition that the unabridged MW didn’t.

I wrote to MW (of course?) and their response more or less confirms what I figured:

Sense 3 of bemused in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary is a recent addition. It did not appear in the Collegiate until the publication of the Eleventh Edition (2003). Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (the print source for the online Unabridged Dictionary) was published in 1961. The Third has received some Addenda updates since that time, but has not received such an update since the publication Eleventh Edition of the Collegiate and does not yet reflect this newer usage of bemused.

It is difficult to tell when this particular usage of bemused entered the language. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage notes that grammarians were warning against the use of bemuse as a synonym of amuse in the 1970s and early 1980s. This same book provides citations dating back to the 1950s in which bemuse may be used in this sense, but the citations are ambiguous and it is difficult to determine if the usage reflects this newer definition of the word.

It is not unusual to find the older senses of the word used in a humorous or hyperbolic manner which is often difficult to distinguish from the newer sense denoting “wry amusement.” Indeed, it is possible that it is precisely such usage, along with the word’s etymological connection to amuse, that have led to the increasing popularity of this newer sense.


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