We are not bemused

It’s a busy week at Coles & Lopez HQ, so we’re offering up a bite-sized blog today. We’re going to talk about two words that mean confused and are themselves confusing: “bemused” and “nonplussed”.

Here’s how the Oxford English Dictionary defines them:

bemused: Puzzled, confused, or bewildered.

nonplussed: So surprised and confused that one is unsure how to react.

Although these words have simple definitions, they are frequently misused. “Bemused” is often used to mean mildly, detachedly amused. “Nonplussed” is used to mean unfazed, not bothered. These incorrect usages are so common that certain dictionaries have started listing them as informal meanings (a phenomenon we touched on a few weeks ago in our blog about “home” vs “hone”).

"Bemused" DOES mean confused or puzzled.

"Bemused" DOES mean confused or puzzled.

"Bemused" DOES NOT mean mildly amused.

"Bemused" DOES NOT mean mildly amused.

"Nonplussed" DOES mean confused to the point of speechlessness. 

"Nonplussed" DOES mean confused to the point of speechlessness. 

"Nonplussed" DOES NOT mean unfazed or unperturbed.

"Nonplussed" DOES NOT mean unfazed or unperturbed.

Why the confusion? Put simply, these words just sound like they should mean something different. “Bemused” is similar to “amused”, and “nonplussed” sounds like a variant of “unimpressed”. It makes sense that many of us leap to the wrong conclusions.   

Plot twist

Despite the fact I’ve just told you how to use these two words, I’m now going to advise you never to use them. Here’s why. When a reader encounters “bemused” or “nonplussed”, one of four things happens:

(1) They have no idea what the word means, so they feel confused.

(2) They think they know what the word means, but they’re actually wrong, so they misunderstand the author’s intention.

(3) They know what the word means, and they’re impressed by the author’s correct usage.

(4) They know what the word means, and they think the author is showing off by using a word that is likely to confuse people.

So you have a one-in-four chance of getting a desirable result. With those odds, you’d be better off just using a less bemusing (ha) synonym.