Grammar 101 with Michael Kwan

It’s natural to assume that similar-looking words must be related in some way. Headphones, earphones and earbuds all serve fundamentally the same function. You’ll probably find happiness at the happiest place on Earth. And while terms like critique and criticism might be connected in some way, other pairs of words vary drastically in meaning. Bemused and amused are not the same thing at all.

You might see one of your Facebook friends posting about how she was “bemused” by the woman in the eccentric dress at the supermarket. That usage might not be strictly incorrect, but it also might not be the meaning that she is trying to convey either. And I’m not entirely certain that either word has anything to do with finding your muse (but they might).

If you are amused by something, then you are pleasantly entertained by that something. You might think that it is funny. Recently, I have been thoroughly amused by Owlturd Comix. I find the webcomic to be both humorous and insightful. I enjoy it tremendously.

If you are bemused by something, on the other hand, then you are perplexed or bewildered by it. You find it puzzling. If someone is nonplussed, then they are surprised or confused, so much so that they don’t know what to do or how to react. That’s a similar kind of meaning.

Going back to your Facebook friend at the supermarket, she may indeed by baffled by the dress the other woman is wearing. More likely, though, your friend probably finds the loud floral pattern to be funny, ridiculous or absurd. Rightly or wrongly, your friend is probably laughing at the other woman, even if she isn’t necessarily giggling out loud.

Actually, if you break down the word “bemuse” (or “bemused”) into its two main parts, you can see how it gets its meaning.

The be- prefix indicates that something is being surrounded or affected completely. The muse part is a verb, meaning to think or to ponder, like how you might talk about your mindless musings. As such, if you encounter something perplexing, you can get completely lost in thought about it, because you can’t wrap your head around it.

I hope you were amused and not bemused by today’s blog post. Have a suggestion for a future Grammar 101? Let me hear it!