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shameless pleading

Bemused

My personal Muse is Caffeinia, goddess of staring vacantly out the window.

Dear Word Detective: I know that “bemused” means “puzzled, confused, or bewildered.” But in most “modern” contexts, I tend to hear it used as a sort of “amusedly bewildered.” I assume this comes from the fact that “amuse” and “bemuse” sound alike. I find this new meaning useful, as it’s nice to have a word to attach to that particular feeling, and there are plenty of other ways to say “confused.” But would you consider this common enough to use in speech and written works today without being misunderstood? Also, as a side note, is “bemused” related to “mazed?” — Michael Duggan.

That’s a very interesting question. Edifying, too. Until I started poking around a bit, I had assumed that the noun “muse” (as in the nine Muses of Greek mythology, of whom more in a moment) was, at a minimum, closely related to the verb “to muse” meaning “to daydream or ponder.” That makes sense, right? The poet is “musing” — staring vacantly out the window — when the “muse” of poetry shows up with a bucket full of inspiration.

But no. “Muse” the noun and “muse” the verb are two separate words, commonly associated today but of completely unrelated origin. “Muse” the noun is usually used today to mean “the guiding spirit or inspiration,” especially of music or poetry (“Whom shall the Muse from out the shining Throng Select to heighten and adorn her Song?” 1714). The original “Muses” of Greek mythology were the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. The division of labor of the Muses was Clio (history), Thalia (comedy and pastoral poetry), Melpomene (tragedy), Euterpe (music), Terpsichore (dancing), Erato (love poetry), Polyhymnia (sacred poetry and hymns), Urania (astronomy), and Calliope (epic poetry). The term “muse” itself comes from Greek roots meaning “music or song,” possibly based on an Indo-European root meaning “mind.” Our modern English “music” comes from Greek roots meaning “the art of the Muses.”

The verb “to muse,” meaning “to be absorbed in thought; to ponder,” first appeared in the 14th century, adapted from the Old French “muser,” which meant all those things plus “to gape at; to stand with one’s nose in the air; to sniff.” If that sounds a bit canine, you’re on the right track. This “muse” comes from roots meaning “muzzle or snout,” and was also used to describe an animal sniffing the air for a scent.

“Amuse” and “bemuse” are very close cousins, both derivatives of the verb “to muse,” and in both cases the prefix (“a” or “be”) serves to strengthen the action of the verb. “Amuse” first appeared in English in the 16th century, drawn from the Old French “amuser,” meaning “to stare stupidly.” In the 17th and 18th centuries, “to amuse” someone was to divert or delude that person in order to cheat them. But the standard sense today is usually “to divert someone’s attention with something light, cheerful and entertaining,” with no intention of larceny. The goal of “amusing” someone is thus to make them laugh, or at least smile (“Representations of … artless innocence always amuse and delight,” 1782).

The original sense of “bemuse,” back in the 18th century, was also “to befuddle or confuse” someone, often oneself, often with alcohol (“A Prussian was regarded in England as a dull beer-bemused creature,” 1880). Until very recently, “bemused” retained more of that “utterly confused” sense than “amused” did, but, as you note, “bemused” is now more likely to be used to mean “wryly amused, with slight puzzlement,” often regarding a matter that might ordinarily be considered in a skeptical or negative light (“Bob was bemused when his elderly widowed mother married her former brother-in-law”). I think this usage is rapidly becoming the standard; using “bemused” to mean simply “confused” or “stupefied” would probably actually confuse listeners today.

Lastly, “bemuse” is not related to “amaze,” which comes from the Old English “amasian,” and originally meant “to stun or render witless.” “Amaze” is related to the noun “maze,” which meant “state of confusion or delirium” before it meant “labyrinth.” The modern sense of “amaze” meaning “to astound; to overcome with wonder” dates to the late 16th century (“Christall eine, Whose full perfection all the world amazes,” Shakespeare, 1593). But in the 16th and 17th centuries, “amaze” was also used to mean “to fill with fear or panic” (“The sight of any shadow amazes the fish,” 1653).

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