We Are Not Bemused

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone,
“it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
— Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass


Language is not a stagnant thing; it grows, changes, and evolves, as long as there are people around who still use it regularly enough to need it. Latin is called a “dead” language in that there are no new words being made. Sometimes, a language can be infiltrated by uses of certain words or inclusions of words from a language different from their own, creating what is called a patois or a vernacular. There are times, however, when language seems to undergo bits of mutation that serve only to wear down the value of the language itself. When these monstrous word-creatures take over a language sufficiently, we get what is termed a dialect. As Professor Henry Higgins notes in the musical My Fair Lady, “There even are places where English completely disappears; in America, they haven’t used it for years.” (The play on which the musical is based, George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, was published in 1913.)

“American” is indeed a dialect that is specific to (or, as I often prefer, “peculiar” to) the United States of America – the only country in an entire hemisphere comprised of North, Central, and South America that has the audacity to refer to itself as “America”, as if the rest either don’t exist or are of no importance. (Considering the shenanigans that the U.S.A. has been perpetrating during this century, I daresay the other countries are probably just as happy to distance themselves as much as possible.) It can be argued, however, that “American” is a dialect of the English language, well on its way to becoming its own language, much to my personal horror.

As Carroll’s character of Humpty Dumpty explains later in his famous exchange with Alice that begins with the quote above, that when he uses the word “impenetrability,” it means “we’ve had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you’d mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don’t mean to stop here all the rest of your life.” As I’m sure anyone worth his Oxford English Dictionary will tell you that the word “impenetrable” means “impossible to see or pass through,” or perhaps – more likely in this case – “impossible to understand.”

If one so chose, he could define cat as “a flightless bird commonly raised on a farm”. Thus, he could say, “My cat clucked loudly as she laid three eggs this morning.” He has chosen to use a word to mean what he wants it to mean, and thus there is complete misunderstanding, lack of communication, and a very good reason to call those nice young men in their clean white coats to fit him up for a dinner jacket that ties his arms behind his back. Words that are misused, or forced to mean something other than what the responsible language authorities agree that it means, lose their power to communicate. (Sadly, some of these “authorities” are themselves becoming corrupted by unnecessary “new” words and non-words — a series of arguments that I’ll be taking on rather forcefully from time to time.)

This dilution of the power of a word to describe accurately is most often the result of it being used both improperly and repeatedly, until the word ultimately is accepted as having the forcibly-imposed new definition accepted along with the old one. Recently, I found the following sentence in a book: “He looked on, bemused, trying not to laugh as her attempts at wrapping the present became ever more silly.” Modern American readers will find nothing wrong with this sentence, but I’m certain that Queen Victoria would have uttered her infamous four-word phrase at once: “We are not amused.”

To be amused is to find something humorous, or perhaps simply to find something interesting or engaging (“He kept the child amused with sleight-of-hand tricks.”). To be bemused is to be bewildered, muddled, suffering from mental confusion. The original meaning, from the middle 18th century, was the result of adding “be” (an intensifier and, in this case, a prefix to back-form a noun into a verb) to “muse”, meaning to be absorbed in thought, or by extension, to have one’s mind captured by a muse, one of the nine goddesses of Greco-Roman mythology said to preside over the arts and sciences. To be “captured by the muse” was to be lost in deep thought, as though communing with one or more of the muses, in the throes of creativity or scientific discovery.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary, which is certainly a dictionary of the “American” dialect, has accepted a tertiary (third level) definition of bemused as “to cause to have feelings of wry or tolerant amusement.” I’d like to point out that even here, in an attempt to bend the language to fit improper usage, M-W had to use the word amusement itself. I would recommend simply using the correct word, modified if you wish. The rewritten sentence from the book would become, “He looked on in wry amusement, trying not to laugh…” This would be correct English, excellent diction (word choice), and a much clearer expression of thought.

Allow me to use this example as the gauntlet I wish to cast. The argument exists that English (or American) is a “living language”, and as such, words are constantly being redefined, used differently, or even dignified by the term neologism (a new word or expression, or a new meaning of a word). The only justification for creating a new word is because it must describe something so unique that it has no contemporary equivalent. When the telephone was invented, a word had to be cobbled together, using (ironically) Latin-based words and prefixes. The first known use was in 1844, and when it went round the world, other languages either tried to mimic the sound (in Russian, it’s телефон or telefon – which is also the title of a pretty good Charles Bronson movie) or create their own descriptive word (in German, fernsprecher, literally “far speaking (device)”, although modern German now uses telefon as well).

Short of creating a word for something that has no other singular word to describe it, English – or even American – has no need for the creation of non-words or the misuse of existing words. Instead of stretching, or even breaking, words to fit a lazy temperament, try finding and using the correct word instead. It might prove quite an amusement, as you sit bemused by your options.


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