Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor

Episode 103: A-Muse and B-Muse

This week on Grammar Grater, we examine another pair of words that can cause confusion: amuse and bemuse.

As Bryan A. Garner writes in his book, Garner's Modern American Usage, "The meanings of these two words differ significantly." Yet Garner was able to find two citations from major media outlets where the word bemuse was accidentally used in place of the word amuse.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines amuse as follows:

A verb meaning to divert the attention of (one) from serious business by anything trifling, ludicrous, or entertaining. Also, To divert, please with anything light or cheerful; especially in the modern sense, to excite the risible faculty or tickle the fancy of.

The Oxford Dictionary of Current English simplifies this definition:

Make (someone) laugh or smile. Also, give someone (something) enjoyable or interesting to do.

Here are examples of the word amuse in action:

The puppet show amused the children.
Later, the children amused themselves by making sock puppets.

The word bemuse means something altogether different. According to The New York Times Everyday Reader's Dictionary of Misunderstood, Misused and Mispronounced Words, bemuse is a verb that means:

To bewilder; confuse; stupefy

Here are examples of the word bemuse in action:

The mathematics student was bemused at the concept of infinity.
The computer consultant bemused his clients with technical jargon.

It's pretty easy to understand how the words amuse and bemuse can get confused. First of all, they share a common root, muse, which on its own, is a verb that means, "To be absorbed in thought; to meditate continuously in silence; to ponder." With that common root, the words have a similar sound.

But probably a more likely way the words get confused is through real-life applications. Consider a magician's act. It's very easy to imagine that an audience watching a magician would be bewildered, confused and stupefied by the magic tricks. As a result, it would be perfectly logical to say:

The audience members were bemused by the magician.

At the same time, because a magic act is a form of entertainment, it would also be accurate to say this:

The audience members were amused by the magician.

In contexts where audiences are amazed and entertained, both words would make sense, and it's easy to see how the meanings might get muddled up. In the case of the magic act, it would be an accurate description—and in no way redundant—to use both words in the same sentence:

The people were bemused and amused by the magician.

At Grammar Grater, we try to provide tricks or tips to help keep confusing words separated. Here's one idea for amuse and bemuse: consider their noun forms, amusement and bemusement, respectively. Amusement is the state of being entertained or laughing; bemusement is the state of being confused or bewildered.

Now let's take that one step further. An amusement park is a fun fair with rides, games and entertainment. They're generally enjoyable places to be. A bemusement park, by stark contrast, would be confusing, perhaps disorienting. In short, it would be a rather unpleasant place to be:

Amusement is enjoyable; bemusement is puzzling.

Sources: Oxford English Dictionary; Oxford Dictionary of Current English; Garner's Modern American Usage by Bryan A. Garner; New York Times Everyday Reader's Dictionary of Misunderstood, Misused and Mispronounced Wordsedited by Laurence Urdang; also mentioned in the sketches was Scoop by Evelyn Waugh.

Music: "All Apologies" by Nirvana; "Every Day I Write the Book" by Elvis Costello

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