Your RDA of Irony

Quip Pro Quo

In the course of a correspondence, a journalist told me that I was loquacious and bemusing.  Only half of her Ivy League education was wasted; she does know the meaning of “loquacious.”  Of course, I was too polite (or craven) to correct her; besides, in ten years or so, she may yet be right about bemusing.  But in the meantime….

What is the definition of “bemuse”:

a.  To confuse or baffle

b.  To  reflect on the humor of a situation

c.  To inspire Rimsky-Korsakov to compose the music for “The Green Hornet”

For the last three hundred years, the dictionary has insisted that the answer is “a”.  However, in the next edition the answer is likely to be “b.”  Language is inherently democratic.  If the majority of people misuses a word, the error becomes the correct definition.  Did you “voice” in the last election?  No, you voted–because a 15th century clerk confused the Latin words “vox” (voice) and “votium (vow), and the mistake proved popular.

And now bemuse is evolving into a synonym for amuse.  It is an effortless error.  Just by appearance, the word looks like “be amused.”  And, ironically, when correctly used, bemuse is still easy to mistake.  In today’s New York Times, a story described a midwesterner as “bemused by the situation in Washington.”  So Washington is baffling, the baffling can be ridiculous, and the ridiculous can be funny.  Ma and Pa Kettle are rarely confused with Noel Coward, yet we just transmuted a puzzled bumpkin into a wry cynic.

It is all quite bemusing.

And when we demean meaning, are we making it kinder?


  1. wayne rhodes says:

    hmmmm….how do you know she DIDN’T mean definition “a”?

  2. Tony H says:

    ..or indeed definition “C”?

  3. Bob Kincaid says:


    You use the word “correspondence.” That used to mean a letter carried by the postal service from sender to receiver. Now, of course, it also includes e-mail, and even e-mail sent on one’s “smart” phone.

    Thus, I offer another possibility: auto-correct. This seemingly harmless feature, most notorious on Apple products can, and often does, change entire sentence meanings without one even knowing it. Our under-30 journalist may well have been unwittingly (is that possible for an Ivy Leaguer) bitten by the auto-correct bug.

    • Eugene Finerman says:


      I doubt that any auto-correct application is programmed to sound like an Ivy League stripling.

      And how soon will stripling be defined as an apprentice exotic dancer?


  4. Eugene Finerman says:

    This topic seems to have aroused interest. Or you are eager for any distraction from resuming the mundane toils of Monday.

  5. Hal Vincent says:

    Eugene, perhaps it’s an alphabetical thing…amusement, bemusement, c-musement…as in c-lions performing at a water show, or better yet, some elaborate Busby Berkley swim-suit production. If so, next comes demusement. Accepting your posited interpretation of “demean” as “to make kinder”…demusement, unfortunately, may imply taking the fun out of things.

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