Bemused...The Soapbox

by Daniel Radosh

Like any good citizen of post-grunge-hoax America, I frequently wonder how much of what I read in popular periodicals is true. Certain key words and expressions raise red flags. Some are obvious: "The White House denies … "; "Creation Science teaches … "; "According to reports on the Internet … " But others are more subtle. The word that always sets off alarm bells for me is "bemused."

If you read any newspapers or magazines, I guarantee that "bemused" (along with "bemuse," "bemuses," "bemusing," and "bemusement") is a word that you come across a lot. It's difficult to consume an issue of, say, Newsweek or The New York Times, and not encounter somebody being bemused about something. It shows up in news articles, reviews, opinion pieces, and photo captions. The only place you will never read the word "bemused" is in a direct quotation, because — and here we arrive at the heart of the matter — "bemused" is a word that no one ever uses in conversation.

You see, there are different types of truth in reporting. An article may have all its facts correct, but if it uses the word "bemused," it is on some level dishonest. I'm not arguing that written language should be a straight transcription of the spoken, but when a word that is never said aloud appears so frequently in print, you have to wonder if the writer's infatuation with his prose style is interfering with his role as a provider of information.
Then, for the first time in his life, he returned the dealers' fire. "It really kicked back," he recalls, looking bemused.
All this excitement and attention bemuse the traditional gardeners, those lifelong devotees for whom the hobby is a necessity, not a luxury.

Case in point: in an article about the last surviving Confederate widow, The New York Times reported that "[celebrity] status bemuses the practical-minded tenant farmer's daughter." Practical-minded tenant farmer's daughters by definition are incapable of anything as highfalutin as bemusement. Surely a different word would have been more appropriate.

Not to mention more clear — for what exactly does "bemuse" mean, anyway? Don't look in a dictionary. Tell me, from context, how one word can be used in both of the following situations:
Principled pro-lifers are right to feel bemused.
In the past, America's preoccupation with Castro has bemused most foreign capitals.
  1. A New York Times article about charging six-year-olds with sexual harassment claims that "what prompted ironic bemusement, if not sardonic scorn … was the use of a phrase meant to describe adult behavior … "
  2. A Time review of the movie SABRINA claims that the audience is "bemused perhaps, even agreeably complaisant, but never entirely amused."
Talk!To repeat: In the first example, the extreme form of bemusement is sardonic scorn. In the second case, the extreme form of bemusement is agreeable complaisance. There could hardly be two more different attitudes. Tossing this word around so freely obscures more than it explains — and that's the truth.   </end>
Have we become so benumbed and bemused by our own accepted mental and technological superiority that we would allow our own instinctive nature to overrule common order, common decency and respect and, not least of all, our common sense?

Daniel Radosh is a regular contributor to STIM. His column "Tonight, on a Very Special Webster" appears each month. He lives in Manhattan.