So I was reading one of my summer reading choices at the beach last week ("Certain Girls" by Jennifer Weiner), and I noticed -- as I always do -- that she often would use the word "bemused" in the sense that someone was operating in a state of mild amusement. This is one of my pet peeves in reading authors/columnists/writers in general, because the word "bemused" is so commonly used in this way, yet it SHOULD be used to convey a sense of being perplexed or confused. There is already a word for someone being amused; it's called "amused."
This being an issue I have come across many, many times in the past, I decided to look up the definition of "bemused" again just to confirm my misgivings. Lo and behold, what should I find this time but that Merriam-Webster online now actually lists a THIRD definition of bemused--and yes, it now states that bemused can mean a state in which one can "...have feelings of wry or tolerant amusement." Um, really? No offense Merriam-Webster, but I've been pretty secure in my assessment of "bemused" before, and have looked it up many times in the past. Never before have I seen it actually being ACCEPTED as a synonym for "amused", nor can I agree with it being used in such a way.
So, having fully embraced my word-nerdiness by this point, I did a quick Internet search on the evolution of "bemused" and came to find this very fascinating article on VisualThesaurus.com:
If you're not as big of a word nerd as I am, and/or you just don't have the time or patience to read all of this, I'll break it down briefly here: basically, the word bemused now falls into an ever-growing category of so-called "skunked terms" in the English language, and Merriam-Webster has taken to including many of these "newer" (read: incorrect) meanings in its dictionaries. Another example cited in this article is the word "nonplussed"; its historical meaning is "puzzled", but since so many people now use it to mean "relaxed" or "unfazed", its meaning is headed down the same path as "bemused." And frankly, that is just wrong.
I'm all about evolution of the English language, but come on--are we really going to go so far as to accept evolution of word meanings simply on account of people being too lazy/ignorant/whatever to actually look them up?? I mean yes, I think we can all agree that "nonplussed", if seen without knowing its meaning, sounds like it would refer to someone who is not (non) bothered (plussed). That just sounds right, so it must be right--right? Because I mean, "plussed" just sort of sounds like "fussed", which is a kind of flustered word, so that should just all fall into accepted usage, no? Who really cares if the new meaning has become virtually the complete opposite of the actual meaning?? While we're at it, can we just add "plussed" to the dictionary too? It sounds like it should really be there, right?!
OK, well clearly I'm getting a bit too worked up over this, but I just find it annoying that we are so quick to transform a word's meaning entirely because people are so consistently wrong about using it.
Oh well. I guess I can just continue to try to do my best to use words correctly and hope that their true meanings will prevail. And as a side note, I realize that writing posts about words/incorrect usage is an open invitation for scrutiny about my own writing, but I would just like to point out that I know I am not always perfect--I like to split infinitives, for one--and I do try not to blast people who misuse words in an everyday context. I do, however, feel that professional authors, writers, etc. should be held to a higher standard on things like this. They are the ones perpetuating the mistakes to all of their loyal readers, and that is a real tragedy. (*Note: NOT, I repeat NOT, a "travesty"). But that is a post for another day...