Words I avoid using because they confuse me:
I feel compelled to respond to this both because I’m a word geek & because I think(?) we first started interacting via tumblr over a post you’d done about using/avoiding particular words. (I could look that up but I’m supposed to be working right now anyway.)
"belie" is used incorrectly pretty much constantly—dudevolleball & I have a running thing where we note correct usages just because they’re so rare (& perhaps also because we’re huge nerds). this bit is actually an example of its accurate deployment; basically, you always want it pointing at the thing that’s being hidden, but it’s often deployed in the inverse. so I can say “the fact that I’m spending time on tumblr right now belies my claim that I have so much work to do,” but I can’t (or shouldn’t) say “my ostensible busyness is belied by the fact that I’m on tumblr” (even though you see it used that way all the time).
the day I learned that “nonplussed” meant “confused” vs. “unimpressed” was a very sad day indeed. it just sounds like it should mean “unimpressed,” & it’s often misused as though it does, so it’s basically a sad choice between “use this word incorrectly in a way that’s rhetorically effective” or “use this word correctly even though we already have a ton of other synonyms, then confuse people regarding your intended meaning.” on the plus side, the statement “I’m nonplussed regarding the word ‘nonplussed’” is accurate no matter which definition you’re going with.
"bemused" I’ve never really had a problem with though—something about its sense of "amused confusion" makes sense to me with the way it sounds. (then again, M-W just informed me that it has another meaning of "to occupy the attention of,” which I’ve never heard before, so maybe this is just blissful ignorance talking.
…& speaking of words, I should probably go write some in the course of the job I get paid to do. still, this was a fun distraction (that I, apparently, bemused myself with).
So here’s my post from a year and a half ago about my atrocious word usage. Just looking at it makes me feel guilty about the amount of editing I am currently not doing. [Though I do have a good excuse, since I NEED to finish my postdoc before I combust from frustration and general lack of progress in my life.]
In my head, bemused is about wry amusement, but I guess it actually means something about bafflement, and I just can’t fit it into sentences when it doesn’t do what I want it to. I have a similar problem with quixotic, which I want to use to mean quirky. Nonplussed, I’ve just given up on, and belie is something that I would really like to use properly, but would need to assign myself some homework on.
I’d say “wry amusement” is pretty much accurate for “bemused,” although it (like, one might argue, all linguistic usage anywhere) seems to be really dependent on context. I ended up talking about this post with dudevolleyball last night, & it came out that we’ve both encountered “bemused” being used as a verbal tic by a certain type of hyper-nerdy girl/woman to interject some smug cutesyness into what’s essentially passive-aggressive criticism. & in other cases it can definitely read as patronizing. I feel like any situation where you’d laughingly say “what??” & not have any other negative reaction is a case where “bemused” could work, but you also see it in a kind of negative-hyperbole sense sometimes too, like “I was bemused to see my entire house had burned down” or whatever, which also clouds its “real” meaning.
"nonplussed," though, just needs to be stricken from the lexicon (although dudevolleyball pointed out that using it incorrectly OR correctly can result in your audience being nonplussed, via either definition, which is kind of amazing). & yes, I know the terrible pain of mentally deciding that a word means something it doesn’t actually mean & then having to retrain yourself to avoid sounding incoherent. I went through a phase of using "codify" a bit more broadly/metaphorically than the dictionary defends, right up until I got called on it at work, & I also somehow got "attuned" confused with "attenuated" a while back, resulting in my widespread misuse of the latter when I meant the former. brains! words! meaning! argh!!!
& “belie”…I’m right with you. during last night’s conversation, I immediately lost all confidence that I’d used it correctly in my example (& it’s one of those things that’s extra tricky in the first person, because you’re already deploying it in a meta kind of way). upon rereading, I don’t think what I wrote was wrong, per se, but it’s a pretty complicated & tricky term, & it says something that I’ve had multiple extened discussions of its accurate usage with an English PhD who has a background in philosophical logic & yet I STILL feel like my grasp on it is tenuous. my go-to reference at this point is a years-old email exchange between me & the dude, which I will reproduce here both by way of documenting our intense over-investment in this shit & also because it would take me way too long to coherently restate it in my own words…consider it your homework reading (or, you know, declare TL;DR on it & go about your life, like any rational person would rightly do):
subj: for the incorrect-use-of-“belie” file
"A mid-century food editor and cookbook author, Cannon was best known for her now-infamous Can-Opener Cookbook, published in 1951 and full of recipes whose baroque names belied their lowbrow ingredients — “Frizzled Ham with Bananas Haitian” (canned ham, bananas, rum, butter), “Lucanian Eggs Au Gratin” (eggs, canned macaroni and cheese).”
it should be “recipes whose lowbrow ingredients belied their baroque names,” right? why is this so hard?!?!?
& his response:
Right, haha. This WOULD be right if there weren’t a relationship of representation already going on (“baroque names”). The problem is that the INGREDIENTS can’t betray the names (or at least, that’s awkward conceptually). But this is MORE right than normal… it’s a semantic problem, rather than a direct misuse (you could see someone using a thesaurus and seeing this as a direct synonym for “misrepresent,” which is synonomic substantially, but not always conceptually/semantically).
For instance, in the first example they give, the terms ARE reversible, since conceptually both the apparent delicacy and inherent toughness are qualities of the tree. So it seems like one belies the other, in either order. But look at the second example: “Their actions BELIE their claim to be innocent.” This gets a bit weird if we substitute the implied “criminal” in front of “actions,” yielding, “Their criminal actions belie their claim to be innocent.” Okay, fine there. But it sounds weird to say “Their claim to be innocent belies their criminal actions.” Since it sounds pretty weird to say that their claim EXPOSES THE LIE IN their behavior. No, their behavior exposes the lie in their claim. But then again, looking back at the tree example, I start to wonder if that example follows this… which it doesn’t really. So maybe the terms ARE reversible, but what we’re talking about is a style/clarity-issue, rather than a usage rule. To me, if you mean “misrepresents,” you should say misrepresents, or contradicts, but that “belie" offers the opportunity for making a distinction between the representation and the substance, as it were.
& of course, the argument could be made that if a term is confusing to numerous intelligent, well-(over-)educated people, it might be worth choosing something else. but when “belie” works well, it’s pretty damn useful.
for my own part, I never, ever know how to use “hegemony” correctly or define it—& that’s certainly true of other words too, although I’m not thinking of any at the moment.