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I generally see the definition of "bemused" to be synonymous with "confused" or "puzzled", and that it is wrong to use it as a synonym of "amused". However I tend to see it used — as Obama did today — as sort of a mixture of "puzzled" and "amused." Like when you shake your head and chuckle at people who get hung up over a silly issue. Which is how Obama seemed to be using it, and how I would tend to use the word myself. After all, there isn't another word that captures that meaning.

Am I correct in this interpretation? Is the meaning of the word subtly changing over time, possibly because it sounds sort of like "amused"?

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4  
Yes, I think that is what's happening, it's being confused with amuse in the minds of many people. For a long time I was very confused as to its meaning myself. –  Uticensis Apr 27 '11 at 16:32
    
I would use it instead of confused where I am trying to make the point that though I don't understand it, it doesn't really bother me. –  z7sg Ѫ Apr 27 '11 at 16:38
    
Etymologically, it should mean something like "inspire". It doesn't mean that either, though. –  Malvolio Jun 24 '11 at 21:22
    
Maybe he couldn't decide and invented a portmanteau of bewildered and amused =) –  Jed Oliver May 1 '12 at 0:28
    
Would you care to quote what he said? –  Nate Eldredge May 1 '12 at 3:19

3 Answers 3

up vote 6 down vote accepted

I think that Obama's apparent misuse of bemused employed to address the birther story is intentional and actually rather cunning.

In effect he plays on the 2 words similarity and possible confusion.

  • On the one hand he means to convey the idea that the implicit personal attack does not affect him (the a-mused part), that it is too low for him to take offense. His amusement is a way of shrugging it off.
  • On the other hand he also intends to signify his amazement at the possibility that one would resort to this kind of strategy to impede his action (the be-mused part). Another complementary way of marginalising the attack.

Since these two objectives of pretend amusement and pretend amazement are often encountered in various public image or ordinary life circumstances, it is indeed quite possible that the significance of bemused would gradually shift from the original meaning of merely puzzled to this hybrid of amused and amazed.

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Although NOT all grammarians are amused,

If the last six months of Nexis citations are any guide," she wrote, "more than half the people reading this think, as the above writers did, that 'bemused' means something like 'amused.' But it doesn't." Perlman, formerly director of copy desks at the Times, believes that "unless Obama was 'confused,' or 'muddled,' or 'puzzled,' he was not 'bemused.'

apparently, Merriam-Webster's 11th Collegiate Dictionary (2003)'s entry can be a cause for bemusement:

to cause to have feelings of wry or tolerant amusement (seems truly bemused that people beyond his circle in Seattle would be interested in his ruminations — Ruth B. Smith)

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Just to be clear, the article you link and quote above is not a quote from Obama from this morning's press conference on the birth certificate thing, but is a quote from a reporter describing Obama's demeanor in 2008. Still, it's interesting to see M-W uses the word "amusement" in one definition of the term. –  rob Apr 27 '11 at 18:37
    
Thanks for your good answer, it was pretty much a coin toss between yours and Alain's answer as to which to accept. –  rob Apr 28 '11 at 2:22
    
@rob thanks for the clarification, I wanted to post the BBC video link that had the Obama clip and wanted to directly quote him - I guess I should have - maybe this answer might have been selected! :) –  Paul Amerigo Pajo Apr 28 '11 at 2:46
    
+1 for the dictionary reference. –  Bobbi Bennett Jun 27 '11 at 2:16

For the record, the word that Obama used wasn't bemused but bemusement. Here is the transcript of his relevant remark from April 27, 2011:

THE PRESIDENT: As many of you have been briefed, we provided additional information today about the site of my birth. Now, this issue has been going on for two, two and a half years now. I think it started during the campaign. And I have to say that over the last two and a half years I have watched with bemusement, I've been puzzled at the degree to which this thing just kept on going. We've had every official in Hawaii, Democrat and Republican, every news outlet that has investigated this, confirm that, yes, in fact, I was born in Hawaii, August 4, 1961, in Kapiolani Hospital.

In Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003), the word bemusement appears without definition at the end of the entry for bemuse:

bemuse vt (1735) 1 : to make confused : PUZZLE, BEWILDER 2 : to occupy the attention of : DISTRACT, ABSORB 3 : to cause to have feelings of wry or tolerant amusement {seems truly bemused that people beyond his circle in Seattle would be interested in his ruminations —Ruth B. Smith} — bemusedly advbemusement n

It seems unlikely that Obama meant to say that the assertion that he was born in a madrassa in Kenya had been absorbing his attention over the past two and a half years, so that takes definition 2 out of contention. He used puzzled three words after he used bemusement, which certainly gives a boost to the idea that he was invoking the definition 1 sense of the word; but he almost certainly did not want listeners to interpret bemusement as a one-word synonym for confusion or bewilderment. That's why definition 3's sense of "wry or tolerant amusement" is a useful adjunct to the puzzlement sense of definition 1. For this reason, I share Alain Pannetier Φ's view that Obama used the word with the intention of drawing on both definition 1 and definition 3.


Side note: How long has bemusement implied a type of amusement?

As the Eleventh Collegiate indicates, the use of bemuse to indicate a specific subcategory of amuse arose some time after the "puzzle, bewilder" and "distract, absorb" meanings did. But when did this new sense reach the threshold of popular usage necessary to merit inclusion in the Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary series?

The answer is, perhaps surprisingly, in 2003. The Tenth Collegiate (1993), like its three immediate predecessors in 1983, 1973, and 1963, had only two definitions for bemuse:

bemuse vt (1735) 1 : to make confused : BEWILDER 2 : to occupy the attention of : ABSORB — bemusedly adjbemusement n

It thus appears that bemusement as a form of amusement is a fairly recent innovation—one based, I suspect, on a mistaken supposition that bemuse shared an element of gaiety or humor or entertainment value with amuse. In any case, the (relatively) new meaning raises some issues of ambiguity, as in the phrase "bemused smile": Does the phrase describe a puzzled smile, an abstracted smile, or a wry smile? In many written instances, especially where a character says or does something equivocal "with a bemused smile," it's impossible for the reader to tell.

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