Christmastime musings on a slippery word, craft, self & pedantry. Or how I quit hating myself because Patti Smith blew the word too.

If you wish to read a wide variety of texts (e.g., novels, newspapers, blog entries) and recognize 98 percent of the words in the texts (98 out of 100 words), you’ll have to know around 8,000 to 9,000 word families (or around 35,000 individual words).—from grammarly blog: “How Many Words Should You Know To Read Books and Watch Movies in English?”

I.

Santa Claus

[Amused, bemused . . . or just drunk as a lord?]

Back in graduate school, I wrote a paper on the misuse of forte. It means a person’s strong suit when pronounced “fort” but refers to a loud musical passage when pronounced as its spelling indicates, for-tey. Or once it did. The distinction has almost been lost partly because people who knew better began mispronouncing forte to fit in.

Which I think is what interested me, that cognitive dissonance. Everyone wants to belong, to be admired by her or his chosen group. So I was upset when I realized recently that I’d misused the word “bemused” several times in my book, Shepherd: A Memoir. The memorable one involves our ewe Big Mama and her sardonic attitude toward me. I said she was bemused.

But bemused does not mean “extra amused”; it means bewildered or confused; a secondary meaning is lost in thought. The word is so rampantly misused that its meaning may be changing. And even when used correctly, its meaning often is unclear.

Here’s Mary Karr, describing her father as her storytelling model, in The Art of Memoir:

He had a talent for physical detail and a bemused attention to the human comedy.

Karr is a best-selling memoirist and a respected poet, so we must assume she’s using the word correctly here. Or must we? I think so. Yet Karr intends praise, and it’s more flattering to her father to picture him as amused by the human comedy than confused by it. Maybe he’s just a bit puzzled like everyone else in this comedy of errors we call life. You can see the lack of clarity flowing from this slippery word.

Here’s an example from Maureen Dodd’s column after Hillary Clinton’s recent grilling before the house committee on Benghazi:

Hillary acted bemused, barely masking her contempt at their condescension. She was no doubt amazed at what an amateur job they were doing at character assassination.

Was she confused or was she amused? This example, which seems to be using bemused to mean derisively amused, epitomizes the problem with this word. So often, the correct or the erroneous usage could apply equally.

From a recent New Yorker article on Justin Bieber:

Bieber’s public, once devoted, or at least bemused, was no longer charmed by his youthful petulance, a quality that can be delightful in small doses but toxic in larger ones (particularly when the perpetrator is both twenty years old and very, very wealthy).

How in the world does anything but the incorrect “amused” meaning for bemused apply here? Were Bieber’s fans once either devoted or confused? Wait, in this case the writer is clearly using it correctly.

It’s the New Yorker, so it’s gotta be correct. Right? Call me a heretic, but I’m calling foul. (Calling fowl would be incorrect, reflecting, um, paltry erudition.)

II.

Patti Smith in 2013, Italy

[Patti Smith in Italy in 2013.]

Writing in the New York Times “After Deadline” blog, Philip B. Corbett broached the bemused issue:

As The Times’s stylebook says, in careful, traditional use, “bemused” means “bewildered,” “confused” or even “stupefied.” An extended meaning is “preoccupied, lost in thought.”

But the similarity in sound to “amused” leads many writers to merge the meaning of the two words, using “bemused” to suggest a sort of detached amusement. A few dictionaries have started to accept this as an alternate sense.

Such shifts in meaning based on an initial misunderstanding are common as the language evolves. Sometimes the derived use becomes so widespread and accepted that it’s pedantic and pointless to insist on only the original sense. For instance, not long ago we dropped our stylebook’s longtime admonition against using “careen” — rather than “career” — in the sense of “lurch along wildly at high speed.” The original distinction had eroded so completely that there was little to gain in clinging to it.

But there’s a reason to go slowly on such changes. Preserving the original sense of a word like “bemused” gives the careful writer an additional, precise tool. When its meaning starts to blur or merge with another word’s, the result, at least for a while, is confusion and a loss of variety.

So let’s try to hold the line on “bemused.”

Fat chance, buddy. In her lovely National Book Award-winning memoir Just Kids, Patti Smith uses bemused five times. The first usages, I gave her a pass. She’s a rock poet goddess! And because, with such a perilous word, sometimes you just don’t know how to read the writer’s intent (per Mary Karr, above).

So . . . to the damning sentence. In portraying rockstar Johnny Winter’s manager, a “charismatic entrepreneur” whom she probably charmed at least as much as he charmed her in their encounters in the Chelsea Hotel, where he had installed Winter in a suite while negotiating a recording contract, Smith writes of him:

Dressed in blue velvet and perpetually bemused, he was a bit of Oscar Wilde, a bit of the Cheshire Cat.

Patti, that cat was perpetually amused. She misuses it a final time, late in the book, in a brief scene portraying her friend Robert Mapplethorpe reacting to her sudden success as a performer:

He exhaled a perfect stream of smoke, and spoke in a tone he only used with me—a bemused scolding—admiration without envy, our brother-sister language.

Patti Smith, a poet in every fiber of her being, riffs with words, goes with her and their feeling. This seems at odds with the spirit that sends a craftswoman to the Oxford English Dictionary. As portrayed in Just Kids, Smith’s formal education is scant and her self-education embodied saturation in poetry, music, and art. Deeply personal, her quest rested on actualization, intuition, and folk music in every sense of folk and music.

Honor craft but beware its enshrinement. This has become one of this blog’s themes, explicated in such posts as “Art, craft and the elusive self,” “Craft, self & rolling resistance,” and “Between self and story.”

As writing theorist Peter Elbow says in Writing with Power:

[S]ome people who write fluently and perhaps even clearly—they say just what they mean in adequate, errorless words—are really hopelessly boring to read. There is no resistance in their words; you cannot feel any force being overcome, any orneriness. No surprises. The language is too abjectly obedient. When writing is really good, on the other hand, the words themselves lend some of their energy to the writer. The writer is controlling words he can’t turn his back on without danger of being scratched or bitten.

III.

SPRINGSTEEN-DARKNESS

[Bruce’s wild castoff from Darkness became Patti’s hit.]

How well I remember pleading with a professor that “battened” was indeed the word I wanted, in approximately this sentence:

The small building was battened behind tall shrubs.

“Batten” commonly means to thrive, feed glutinously, or fatten—Annie Dillard loves it in the latter usage. So my remonstrance only provoked my teacher’s bemused expression and a slow shaking of his head. But somewhere in the fevered recesses of my twenty-year-old brain, I must’ve been influenced by the nautical definition—as in, “Batten down the hatches, matey!”

Here’s an instance showing how the wooly self and its evocative, emotional associations might clasp hands with dry, seemingly linear craft. Using the dictionary to explore my notion, I might have tried this startling usage:

The small building was fastened behind tall shrubs.

Maybe too odd. But playing off all things oceanic:

Marooned on the edge of campus, the small building seemed fastened there by overgrown shrubs that lapped at its eves.

Not quite there, but promising. Self, meet craft.

People dislike pedants even more than they disdain unruly poets, whose egotism seems transparent and therefore more pardonable. I admit that some of the Beatles and even Dylan’s rhymes grate on me. But there’s something to the notion of going with emotional truth, with feeling over mere correctness. As Marvin Bell wrote in “Three Propositions: Hooey, Dewey, and Loony”:

Graduates of what we call our “educational system” and the academics thereof whose professional standing depends on research into what can only be called, with gross naïvete, the “facts” of literature often make a poor audience for the poetry in poems. They want to find out what a poem means rather than how to follow and experience it. They have been schooled in getting to the gist of things and moving on, so they approach poetry as if it were content covered up by words.

To edge back from the lip of chaos here, the first problem with lambasting diction or grammar errors is that someone always knows more than you do. New York Times readers responding to the column on bemused made grammatical errors in airing their own crotchets. Airing their crotchets? That sounds nasty! And crotchet means “an odd fancy or whimsical notion,” I see. So perhaps they were venting pet-peeves (or maybe loosing bugbears?).

Anyway I’ve got my own new bugaboo to brood upon. Forever, apparently. Bemusing to say the least.

[Below, in 1978 Patti Smith sings her impressionistic hit “Because the Night,” written using the chorus and melody of a song given to her by Bruce Springsteen.]

30 Comments

  • J.V. Wylie says:

    What a riff, Richard: from the drunk/bemused Santa to Elbow, Bell and Smith. Great, great post. Thank you.

  • Though I’m not a sinner as regards the “bemused” word, since I looked it up the first time I heard it when I was quite young and understood the primary definition, I only recently heard the correct pronunciation of the word “forte” when it means “a person’s strength.” I guess we all have something to learn; it would be a dull world indeed if we knew all things (or thought we did!). Thanks for your delicious post today–I love word feasts!

  • Janice Gary says:

    Very bemusing post…I mean, amusing.

  • Ah yes, and how about the shift in meaning of “beg the question,” which used to mean, according to New York Times’ Philip B. Corbett, “to use an argument that assumes as proved the very thing one is trying to prove?” Now it’s more frequently used to mean “demand that the question be asked.”

    By the way, thanks for your post about the film, Seymour: An Introduction. Such an inspiration to any practice, including writing, but in fact it got me to call the piano tuner this week and begin to practice again.

    • Richard says:

      Two delightful anecdotes, Linda. I believe I misuse “beg the question.” That expression may have become another lost cause!

      But my takeaway on all this, or at least my practice, is to look up more and more words. I try to go with the impulse that comes to mind, but then examine it. There’s often a personal connection in one’s instinct, as in my sense of “battened” being salvaged by extending its underlying nautical metaphor. Hence researching—for me, likely to be a quick check at thesaurus.com rather than cracking the OED—not solely for correctness but for deepening one’s instinctual association.

      In “beg the question,” as you explain it, I can see how learning the phrase’s origins might provoke a tweak related to debate or logic.

  • rossmurray1 says:

    “Nonplussed” is the first cousin of “bemused.” It’s a troubled family.
    Enjoyed this.

    • Richard says:

      Thank you, Ross. Yes, nonplussed is on my actual list of words with bemused that people (like me) often get wrong. So are Ineffable (incapable of being expressed, inexpressible), ineluctable (incapable of being evaded, inescapable), sanguine (cheerfully optimistic, hopeful, or confident), and even infer, which sounds in error even when used correctly (vs. imply).

  • Let me use a disclaimer with this comment: I am not entirely sure this is true. I heard once that the word “impact” never used to be a verb until Ronald Reagan used it as such in a speech. Webster calls it a verb, but I have always wondered if its original purpose was to be used only as a noun. The word “impacted” has always irritated me, so I hope it’s true. I never allowed my students to use it as a verb, whether or not it is supposed to be one. Language is very interesting, and so was this post!

    • Richard says:

      As much as I disdain Reagan, PursuePeace, I find it hard to believe he originated using impact as a verb. If only because his speechwriter surely put that ugly usage in his mouth! But I do believe that in garbling a text he did originate what best indicts him: “Facts are stupid things.” Here’s a huge difference because of slight shadings of meaning: he was supposed to say “stubborn.” The two words are not synonymous, of course . . .

  • Another such example can be enervate. It is deceiving and like bemused, people use it incorrectly
    great post

  • Karl Drobnic says:

    Language is constantly changing. Read some Chaucer in the original and you’ll see a number of high class words of yore that have evolved over time into vulgarities.

  • boringbug says:

    I am bemused!*

    It is an extraordinary piece of writing. Thank you for enlightening youngsters like me.

    regards

  • filzakhan456 says:

    its realy awesome writing for the youngers. thanks for posting Richard.

  • rudyblues57 says:

    Great piece Richard!

    Although I’m not a linguist or a lexicographer, or even a strong writer, I do love to explore the meanings and origins of words and how they’ve changed over time. Batten is a perfect example of a word that developed two distinct and unrelated meanings over time. The two meanings actually derived from different sources. Often one of the meanings fades from the popular lexicon. You end up with a professor who insists there is only one meaning. Perhaps we should thrash him with a batten if he won’t batten on the work of the lexicographer?

    Here’s to preserving all the nuance. Well played.

    • Richard says:

      Thanks so much, Rudy. And nice play on “batten.” Your notion of beating my professor with a batten reminds me: aren’t the wooden slats in sails also called battens? If so, there’s another nautical element.

      And I do wish HE had led me, if not himself, to the dictionary to explore definitions and connotations. Alas, I’m sure he had bigger or other fish to fry that day . . .

  • Resh Susan says:

    Loved this article. I had never thought much about words incorrectly used in books or for that matter in The New Yorker

  • TSeral says:

    Thank you for the nice article!
    English is not my mother tongue, but since I almost exclusively read English books, I came across ‘bemused’ a couple of times. I gathered that it means the newer meaning, ‘detached/confused amusement’. It is interesting to hear that this is not exclusively true. I, however, would use it that way, because for me that is what the word means.
    I also did not know ‘forte’ is pronounced like ‘fort’, when describing personal fortitudes, German has the same word with similar meaning, a very old-fashioned one, which I would pronounce ‘fortE’ (in the French way).

    • Richard says:

      Thanks, Rabea. I sense that bemused is coming/has come to mean what you’d surmised, a detached or sardonic amusement. But not everyone has gotten that memo, or they are trying to hold the line. I was called out for using it that way, hence this post. It’s now a word that sends me to the thesaurus to seek alternatives. Cognitive dissonance!

  • Many I add one? “moot” It’s nearly unanimously used to mean “no debate” when the real def is: “subject to debate, dispute, or uncertainty, and typically not admitting of a final decision.”

  • Richard says:

    I just came across William Faulkner’s clever, correct usage of bemused in his classic story “A Rose for Emily”:

    “And now Miss Emily had gone to join the representatives of those august names where they lay in the cedar-bemused cemetery among the ranked and anonymous graves of Union and Confederate soldiers who fell at the battle of Jefferson.”

    Maybe only Faulkner could think of cedar-bemused. Perfect!

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