The Grammarphobia Blog

The use and misuse of “peruse”

Q: I have always used the word “peruse” to indicate a skimming through. But I was recently told that the word actually refers to a thorough reading, which, according to the dictionary and to my surprise, is correct. Was I ever right? (I have heard others use “peruse” to indicate a skimming through.) What is the word’s history?

A: Sorry, you lose on “peruse.” It means to read thoroughly, not to skim through. The Oxford English Dictionary‘s earliest reference dates to the late 15th century, when the word meant to go through or examine a number of things one by one, or to use up or wear out something. It has meant to read thoroughly or examine in detail since the early 16th century.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language says “peruse” comes from an old word in Middle English, “perusen,” which meant to use up. The American Heritage has an informative usage note on “peruse.”

If it’s any consolation, many, many people misuse “peruse.”