I just used the word bemused and suddenly asked myself where it had come from. I said to my wife “I wonder if it has anything to do with the Muses?” but was more or less joking — I didn’t see how that would work. But lo and behold, per M-W:

In 1735, British poet Alexander Pope lamented, in rhyme, being besieged by “a parson much bemus’d in beer.” The cleric in question was apparently one of a horde of would-be poets who plagued Pope with requests that he read their verses. Pope meant that the parson had found his muse—his inspiration—in beer. That use of bemused harks back to a 1705 letter in which Pope wrote of “Poets … irrecoverably Be-mus’d.” In both letter and poem, Pope used bemused to allude to being inspired by or devoted to one of the Muses, the Greek sister goddesses of art, music, and literature. The lexicographers who followed him, however, interpreted “bemus’d in beer” as meaning “left confused by beer,” and their confusion gave rise to the first modern sense of bemuse above. The newer (and common) use of bemuse to mean “to cause to have feelings of wry or tolerant amusement” is a topic of some dispute, as discussed here.

Whodathunkit! And I must say, knowing the origin of the “correct” sense in a misunderstanding makes me a lot more tolerant of the newer use that is “a topic of some dispute”; we discussed that back in 2012, when I quoted the AHD entry. I did not notice a decade ago, but do now, that that AHD entry is missing an etymology, which bemuses (but does not amuse) me.


  1. Kate Bunting says

    I don’t think I’ve ever come across ‘bemuse’ used in the ‘new’ sense, and would have viewed it as a malapropism if I had.

  2. “My friends, for your amusement and bemusement, I give you the human
    person.” Hawkeye – MASH Year 4 Episode 18 1976 22:44

  3. David Eddyshaw says

    Says the Merriam-Webster link:

    You can use the word bemused to mean “wryly amused,” but you should be aware that some people will think less of you for doing so.

    Fair enough. Oderint, dum metuant!

  4. OED has bemuse as a variant or derivative of muse “ponder” (1340) from a somewhat unclear French source, but certainly nothing to do with the Muses.

  5. Searching the LH archives, a relevant 2008 comment from Stuart:

    I’ve always read “heh” as a marker of mild wry amusement, while “huh” is more about bemusement.

    The 2012 post forgets a 2010 post where heh-bemused was first mentioned.

  6. OED has bemuse as a variant or derivative of muse “ponder” (1340) from a somewhat unclear French source, but certainly nothing to do with the Muses.

    Which OED are you looking at? The entry hasn’t been updated since 1887, and it doesn’t say anything about French:

    Etymology: < be- prefix 2 + muse v.: compare amuse.

  7. Jen in Edinburgh says

    The 1340 date is for muse itself, with the meaning ‘To be absorbed in thought; to meditate in silence; to ponder.’

    ‘Attempts to connect the sense ‘to ponder, reflect’ with classical Latin mūsa muse n.1 are unconvincing’, it says.

    Which would make Pope’s version a kind of pun.

  8. J.W. Brewer says

    The standard etymology for “amuse” links it to “muse” in the sense of ponder, whose own etymology has some controversy but is not AFAIK claimed by anyone to relate to the capital-M Muses.

    I find JeninEd’s suggestion that Pope was engaging in low wordplay a plausible one.

    When did the be- prefix (found in words as varied as beset, bemoan, befriend, bedazzle, etc.) cease to be productive in English?

  9. Stu Clayton says


    Do you remember the novel that appeared in, without looking it up in the tubes ? It’s the only specific thing I remember about that novel, except that it was amusing overall. Lots of people besides me picked up the expression and ran with it, who knows why.

  10. To bemuse means to make someone slip on a banana peel.

    So I have ordained.

  11. When did the be- prefix cease to be productive in English?

    I don’t know, but it lived on as a learned archaism, which is how Pope used it.

  12. Do you remember the novel that appeared in, without looking it up in the tubes ?

    My guess would be Babbitt, but it certainly didn’t originate in a novel — it occurs, for example, in the Bulletin of Pharmacy, Vol. 26 (1912). It’s a pretty obvious phonetic respelling + jocular past participle.

  13. Stu Clayton says

    Yeah, it’s an old expression. I read a book review in the 60s that remarked on the expression in The Group (Mary McCarthy). That was what motivated me to read the novel, as I recall.

    # … her close friendship with Hannah Arendt, with whom she maintained a sizable correspondence widely regarded for its intellectual rigor. After Arendt’s passing, McCarthy became Arendt’s literary executor, serving from 1976 until her own death in 1989.[14] As executor, McCarthy prepared Arendt’s unfinished manuscript The Life of the Mind for publication. #

  14. cuchuflete says

    When did the be- prefix (found in words as varied as beset, bemoan, befriend, bedazzle, etc.) cease to be productive in English?

    Before reading that query I was fuddled. Now…

  15. Stu Clayton says

    Not unlike the “be-” in Spanish becar = “grant money for a [small] car”.

  16. @J.W. Brewer: When did the be– prefix (found in words as varied as beset, bemoan, befriend, bedazzle, etc.) cease to be productive in English?


  17. As Jen indicated, the verb muse is from French, and the OED points out that it seems to be from the same source as muzzle (there’s a whodathunkit!), whose antecedents can’t be traced back farther than post-classical Latin musus or musum, “of uncertain origin.”

  18. Stu Clayton says

    post-classical Latin musus or musum, “of uncertain origin.”

    DWDS adds on Muse:
    # Man erwägt u. a. durch Zusammenstellung mit den unter munter (s. d.) genannten Formen eine Deutung als ‘seelische Erregung’ oder Herleitung von griech. mṓsthai (μῶσθαι) ‘streben, trachten, verlangen’ (s. Mut). #

    munter = chipper.

  19. That’s a speculative etymology for Ancient Greek Μοῦσα (> classical Latin mūsa), not post-classical Latin musus/musum. The latter is a separate word meaning ‘muzzle, snout’, attested in Latin with many attested reflexes in Romance languages, and as Jen said, the OED has already considered and rejected any connection with dancing goddesses.

  20. PlasticPaddy says

    What about a connection with mūscum = moss with the common idea being outgrowth/protrusion?

  21. If not noted before, Dryden used bemus’d published in 1716. hathitrust

    But ſure no Poet e’er had Qualms for Rhimes ; Alas! no wholſom Counſel can be usd By a poor harden’d Wretch, when once Bemus’d; : Then don’t inhumanly your Pains mif-ſpend On Reprobates, that you can never mend

  22. And that too is clearly based on the Muses.

  23. That’s not by Dryden — turn back a page or two, the author is a “Mr. Fr. Knapp, of Magdalen Colledge in Oxford” — rather, Dryden was one of the editors of the anthology, first published in 1694. The poem is a tongue-in-cheek admonishment to a critic to lay off lambasting crappy poets, because they’re too addled to reform, and they’re just going to starve anyway. Bemus’d is italicized, so possibly this author is making the same pun as Pope.

    So yup, there are precedents before Pope, but no, I don’t believe it really originated from any misunderstanding of poetry; Pope was punning on two senses that already existed. The verb muse was right there, and there’s no reason to assume bemuse didn’t form in the obvious way from be- + muse, v., just like the dictionaries say. Via EEBO, here’s an earlier example from an anti-Quaker tract from 1656, which is unambiguous:

    here is all the substance of this large Story, the which he doth upon purpose to bemuse and confound the people, that so they might be kept off from the serious Examination of the premises;

    And is Merriam-Webster seriously claiming that lexicographers’ “confusion gave rise to the first modern sense of bemuse above” (i.e., ‘make confused, puzzle, bewilder’)? Since when are *lexicographers* responsible for new senses catching on? You know they aren’t. It’s not previous lexicographers who are confused here, it’s MW, unfortunately. Looks to me like they just glanced at the old OED entry, assumed it was the complete history of the word and didn’t check further. I thought they knew better than that. Hat, I’d say you’ve been sold snake oil.

  24. Dammit, and I don’t even like snake oil! It’s all AHD’s fault for omitting the etymology that would have set me on the right path.

  25. Beuzeville says

    Many thanks to ktschwarz for finding that important early attestation of bemuse.

    It’s all AHD’s fault for omitting the etymology

    I agree! The word bemuse has been left without an etymology in the AHD since the first edition. The front matter says that for reasons of space, “Obvious derivatives are not given etymologies”. I have often struck by the words that the etymologists of the AHD considered “obvious derivatives”. To take the first example that comes to me, in the 4th edition (2001), aneuploid was left without an etymology. Anyone who could figure out that this is an- plus eu- plus -ploid would probably not be looking the word up in the first place. (This example comes to me first because my housemate in the 2000s, a grad student in evolutionary biology, asked me once exactly how this word was formed after looking it up in the copy of the AHD on the coffee table in our living room and not finding an answer.) As for bemuse, it was assumed the reader could parse it into be-

    1. Completely; thoroughly; excessively. Used as an intensive: bemuse.
    2. On; around; over: besmear.
    3. About; to: bespeak.
    4. Used to form transitive verbs from nouns, adjectives, and intransitive verbs, as: a. To make; cause to become: bedim. b. To affect, cover, or provide: bespectacled.

    plus muse. Definition 1 of the prefix is illustrated by bemuse. This choice was made in the 3rd edition of 1992. I would have thought bemuse illustrated definition 4, not 1, since bemuse is transitive and means “confuse”, that is, “make be absorbed in thought, make stop and ponder in bewilderment”, a transitivization of intransitive muse. But what do I know?

    By not including an etymology for bemuse, the AHD1 saved space on the page for the curious, almost overdefined, entry for bellywhop:

    bel·ly·whop (bĕlē-whŏp′) intr. v. -whopped, whopping, -whops
    Slang. 1.a To coast while lying belly down on a sled. b. To cast oneself on a sled belly down, after making a short run to gain speed. 2. To dive striking the chest or chest and belly flat against the water. –n. also bellywhopper (bĕlē-whŏp′ər) Slang. A dive performed in this manner.

    That is, at least in the second sense, a bellyflop, a word which is not entered in the AHD1. Bellywhop was dropped in subsequent editions, and bellyflop added.

  26. There’s “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” from the 1940 musical Pal Joey, based on the writings of John O’Hara. Then there are the three hobo bats in the Pogo comic, Bewitched, Bothered and Bemildred.

  27. beNOUNed is productive for adjectives meaning “wearing a NOUN”. As regards verbs, Thomas Jefferson took flak for coining “belittle”.

  28. cuchuflete says

    As regards verbs, Thomas Jefferson took flak for coining “belittle”.

    Thos. Jefferson beflakked. Read alllabouddit!

  29. Quick note on the text of Pope’s poem: in the first printed edition it’s “be-mus’d in Beer”, with a hyphen. I wonder if that suggests it was a neologism, not a familiar word at the time? But maybe we can’t read too much into 18th-century typesetting, and it’s hard to know whether that was Pope’s choice, or the printer’s.

    Also, the great Jack Lynch’s annotations say that “be-mus’d in” is a pun on Eusden, the recently deceased poet laureate, who was one of the writers ridiculed in the Dunciad. Sounds like the kind of thing Pope would do.

  30. mollymooly: beNOUNed is productive for adjectives meaning “wearing a NOUN”.

    And yet “bespectacled” has that form and no other; no “beglassed” has replaced it.

  31. wiktionary has cites for “beglassed” Also out there are “beglassesed” (Seth Kaufman) “besunglassed” (Simon Reid-Henry) and “granny-beglassed” (Benjamin DeMott). Morphology is complicated.

  32. granny-beglassed

    Sung to the tune of “Johnny B. Goode.”

  33. Betentacled.

  34. beNOUNed is productive for adjectives meaning “wearing a NOUN”.

    FWIW, the most recent coinage attested in the OED is bejeaned (the Grauniad: ‘A sulky adolescent and his be-jeaned girl-friend‘.)

    For many of the other senses there are new coinages attested into the 1880s, such as bebite in Webb’s 1880 translation of Faust.

  35. David Eddyshaw says

    Interesting that although these “beNOUNed” clothing forms look like past participles, there are no corresponding verbs: *The adolescent had earned enough money at the carwash to bejean his girlfriend, or even to bejewel her.”

    You can be bespectacled, but not even an optician can bespectacle you.

  36. David Marjanović says

    munter = chipper.

    Or just “awake”.

    You can be bespectacled, but not even an optician can bespectacle you.

    You can also be bearded, straightforwardly cognate to barbatus, yet a verb is nowhere to be found. This use of *-tó- seems to be older than the integration of its deverbal applications into the verb system as participles. Even some of those retain stative as opposed to resultative senses – áphthiton/ákṣitam meaning “imperishable” rather than “not having perished”.

  37. @David Eddyshaw: I find bejewel okay as a verb.

  38. David Eddyshaw says

    Interesting that clothing seems to bulk large among these “stative” forms (I suppose “beard” is not too far conceptually from “clothing.”)

    Kusaal verbs can use the perfective form as stative if-and-only-if the verb describes a change of state in the subject (unsurprisingly enough.) The overwhelming majority of such verbs are either intransitive or patientive ambitransitive:

    O kpiya. “He’s died.”
    O kpinɛ. “He’s dead.”

    O bʋgya. “He’s got drunk.”
    O bʋgnɛ. “He’s drunk.”

    Li bɔdigya. “It’s got lost.”
    Li bɔdignɛ. “It’s lost.”

    (Bɔdig can mean “lose” as well.)
    Just about the only strictly transitive examples I’ve found involve clothing:

    O yɛ fuug. “He’s put a shirt on.”
    O yɛnɛ fuug. “He’s wearing a shirt.”

    Come to think of it, this overlaps with our recent discussion about “I’m sat/stood”:

    “She’s clothed in furs.”

    is another one of these forms which could be either “verbal passive” (basically dynamic) or “adjectival passive” (basically stative.)

  39. David Eddyshaw says

    I find bejewel okay as a verb

    It was evidently only the grinding poverty of my hardscrabble childhood that led to my unfamiliarity with this boss-class word.

    ‘Course, we ‘ad it ‘ard

  40. You can also be bearded, straightforwardly cognate to barbatus, yet a verb is nowhere to be found.

    Only the other day I bearded the lion.

  41. David Eddyshaw says

    Come to think of it, English has a whole productive formation with not-participles in -ed in the shape of compounds like long-haired, three-legged, absent-minded.

    Latin has ansatus, another one which is Positively Nothing To Do With Clothing. I thought of lunatus too, but it seems that there actually is a verb lunare “bend into a crescent shape.”

  42. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    Wiktionary even lists E ansated, with two cognate suffixes on L ansus.

    FWIW, Danish has skægget = ‘bearded’ with not even the excuse of cognacy to barbatus. And langhåret, trebenet. I think Swedish prefers skäggig (exaclty copgnate with E shaggy) and långhårig but accepts trebenad*; my Gothic is too small to know if it has parallels.
    (*) This is the expected citation form for a participle from the most common verb class as well, as if bena = ‘supply with legs’ was a thing. (It does exist in the sense of ‘to leg it’).

  43. (That’s L ānsa, f. ‘handle’.)

    Ansated is an adjective that occurs in only three contexts: in ansated cross (=ankh, generally in a context of occultism); in archaeology describing a vase, dish, etc. with handles; or in astronomy describing the appearance of Saturn with rings sticking out like handles on both sides. Astronomers also use the base noun ansa for the sticking-out parts of the rings.

    Somehow the double-suffixed ansated appeared in English over a century before the simpler ansate. Johnson’s and Webster’s dictionaries included only ansated.

    From the same source: Italian orecchie ad ansa ‘jug ears’, discussed here under Bunin’s Loopy Ears.

  44. @ktschwarz: I don’t think I’ve encountered any of those Latinate senses associated with the rings of Saturn, whereas I have seen the ankh usage.

  45. Yes, the adjective ansated was really barely ever used in the ringed-planet sense in English; the OED cites a 1754 book already calling it “A term used by some of the earlier astronomers”, and almost all hits for “ansated Saturn” in Google Books are just references to the same 17th-century source. This usage was so obscure that the old OED didn’t have it, it only had the ankh and archaeological senses.

    The noun ansa is definitely in current use in astronomy; I even saw one site saying it could also refer to “extremities of a lenticular galaxy”.

    All the English borrowings seem to apply specifically to loop-type handles, like on a mug or teapot, though the Latin word could also be used for a door handle or the tiller of a ship.

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