April 18, 2013

Weekly Language Usage Tips: Mea Culpa Edition – bemuse & renown or renowned

Posted in bemuse, renown or renowned at 6:31 am by dlseltzer

A couple of alert readers have written to me about some issues (read that: problems) they have observed (Say it ain’t so, Joe).

NOTE: If you think the last reference has something to do with Sarah Palin and Joe Biden rather than Shoeless Joe Jackson, please google it now. I’ll wait.

After a little thought and some research, I think one reader is right, and one is wrong. I thought I would address these issues today. So here goes.

Tip 1: Bemuse

A reader writes:

‘Bemused’ is an odd word, no? Three very different definitions:

tr.v. be·mused, be·mus·ing, be·mus·es. 1. To cause to be bewildered; confuse. See Synonyms at daze. 2. To cause to be engrossed in thought.

Bemuse – Merriam-Webster Online

www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/bemuse to cause to have feelings of wry or tolerant amusement <seems truly bemused that people beyond his circle in Seattle would be interested in his ruminations …>

Which is sad. Because if you intended ‘wry or tolerant amusement,’  ‘amused’ would have communicated this without ambiguity (but unfortunately, without the nuance).

What the reader is referring to is when I wrote the following a couple of weeks ago:

A colloquialism is a form of casual or informal speech that is often used when speaking. It is usually related to a specific geographic region, but not always. A classic example of a Pittsburgh colloquialism is ‘red up’ which means ‘clean up’ or ‘tidy up.’ While used throughout Western Pennsylvania, listeners or readers elsewhere would be bemused by the expression.

I agree with the reader that ‘bemused’ is an odd word, but I wasn’t shooting for the ‘amuse’ definition which is increasingly being accepted but hasn’t gotten the whole way there yet. I was shooting for the ‘bewildered’ or ‘befuddled’ definition. What makes ‘bemuse’ especially odd is that along with meaning ‘to cause to be confused,’ it also means ‘confused’ or ‘perplexed.’ That’s how I was using it:

While used throughout Western Pennsylvania, listeners or readers elsewhere would be confused by the expression.

Here’s what Garner has to say about bemuse and amuse:

The meanings of these two words differ significantly. Bemuse = (1) to make confused or muddled; bewilder <the jury was bemused by all the technical evidence>; or (2) to plunge into thought; preoccupy <the math student was bemused with the concept of infinity>. Amuse, of course, means ‘to entertain’ or ‘to cause laughter in’ <the speaker amused the audience with various anecdotes>.

I’m not going to use ‘bemuse’ as a synonym for ‘amuse’ anytime soon. As my good friend, the reader, notes:

Because if you intended ‘wry or tolerant amusement’ , ‘amused’ would have communicated this without ambiguity.

Why make ‘bemuse’ do the work of ‘amuse’?

I’ll stick by my answer, here, I think. But, I acknowledge another reader’s point when it comes to ‘renown’ or ‘renowned.’

Tip 2: Renown or renowned

A reader writes:

‘A city renown’ (as you write in today’s WLUT), or ‘a city renowned’  (as I have used it…)???  What’s the difference?  Am I being stuffy and old-fashioned to use the past tense?

This is what I wrote:

·      A city renown for some specific activity

I was talking about the word, capital, and its definitions, but I should have written:

·      A city renowned for some specific activity

The reader is by no means stuffy or old-fashioned; the reader, in fact, is right. When I told her she was right, she kindly tried to take me off the hook by writing that:

The ‘Google define’ function actually says both are OK!  I supposed it’s a matter of personal preference…

 This was very nice of her, but I have to decline. I was wrong. Hoist with my own petard.

NOTE: For an explanation of this expression (hoist with my own petard), see: https://languagetips.wordpress.com/category/hoist-with-his-own-petard/

Here’s the story about ‘renown’ and ‘renowned.’ ‘Renown’ is a noun.

It is a city of great renown.

“Renowned,’ on the other hand, is an adjective, and that’s what I should have used.

He is renowned for his ability to play the violin.

So remember, renown is the noun, and renowned is the adjective.

Another thing, some people (and I am not naming names) think the word should have a ‘k’ in it—that ‘renown’ is related to ‘known.’ It isn’t—no ‘k.’ It is ‘renowned’ or ‘renown.’



  1. Michael said,

    I’ve notices a trend. I hear people say “I feel like…” instead of “I feel…” or “I feel that…” I find it grates on my good ear and wonder if the insertion of the word “like” doesn’t change the meaning, too. To feel like something isn’t the same as feeling something. It’s another reason to hate the word “like,” as well.

  2. WendyShad said,

    Hm. May just say renown is a noun as well as a verb. Good to learn the second definition of bemused.

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