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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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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

2 Answers 2

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

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