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The evolution 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:  You’re quite correct in your use of “peruse.” It’s true that the most commonly accepted meaning today is to read thoroughly. But in the last decade or so [see our note at the end], the sense in which you use the wordto skim through, glance at, or briefly consulthas seen a revival and has made great gains. It’s considered acceptable in many standard dictionaries and hovers on the edge of respectability in others.

First, some history. “Peruse” comes from an old word in Middle English, “perusen,” which meant to use up.

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.

But that’s not all it has meant. As the OED adds, the verb has also been used to mean “to look over briefly or superficially; to browse,” as well as simply “to read.”

Oxford notes that despite the claims of some modern dictionaries and usage guides, “peruse has been a broad synonym for read since the 16th cent., encompassing both careful and cursory reading.”

“The implication of leisureliness, cursoriness, or haste is therefore not a recent development,” the dictionary adds.

The OED’s citations include this quotation by Samuel Johnson, from The Idler (1759): “Whatever is common is despised. Advertisements are now so numerous that they are very negligently perused.”

According to Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.), the word “has a long literary history with many fine shades of meaning.”

These are among the current definitions given in Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged:

(1) “to examine or consider or survey (something) with some attention and typically for the purpose of discovering or noting one or more specific points :  to look at or look through fairly attentively”;

(2) “to look over or through (something) often in a casual or cursory manner”;

(3) to “read.”

Merriam-Webster’s has a worthwhile usage note on “peruse,” which we’ll quote:

“It was a more ordinary word in the past than it is now, although it still has considerable use. About 1906 a writer on usage decided that peruse could mean only ‘to read with care and attention,’ for what reason we do not know. In time this opinion was echoed by a number of commentators, right down to the present. Peruse has indeed been used in the ‘careful and attentive’ sense, but writers almost always signal that meaning with a modifier.”

The dictionary cites such usages as “with heed peruse,” “attentively peruse,” and “peruse thoroughly.”

At least one dictionary hasn’t yet caught up with the explanation in the OED.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) defines the word as meaning “to read or examine, typically with great care.” The use of the word to mean “to glance over” or “skim” is labeled a “usage problem.”

American Heritage elaborates in a usage note:

Peruse has long meant ‘to read thoroughly,’ as in He perused the contract until he was satisfied that it met all of his requirements, which was acceptable to 75 percent of the Usage Panel in our 2011 survey. But the word is often used more loosely, to mean simply ‘to read,’ as in The librarians checked to see which titles had been perused in the last month and which ones had been left untouched. Seventy percent of the Panel rejected this example in 1999, but only 39 percent rejected it in 2011. Further extension of the word to mean ‘to glance over, skim’ has traditionally been considered an error, but our ballot results suggest that it is becoming somewhat more acceptable. When asked about the sentence I only had a moment to peruse the manual quickly, 66 percent of the Panel found it unacceptable in 1988, 58 percent in 1999, and 48 percent in 2011. Use of the word outside of reading contexts, as in We perused the shops in the downtown area, is often considered a mistake.”

But even that last usage is now accepted by Merriam-Webster, as noted above. The dictionary’s examples include “peruse the museum” and “shoppers perusing saris.”

In recent years, more dictionaries have endorsed your use of “peruse.”

For example, the definition in the Cambridge Dictionaries online has “to read or look at something in a relaxed way” as well as “to read carefully in a detailed way.” And the Collins English Dictionary online (both British and American editions) has “to browse or read through in a leisurely way” alongside to read or examine with care; study.” 

At least one dictionary lists yours as the only definition. The Macmillan Dictionary, in its American and British online editions, defines “peruse” as meaning “to read something.”

[Note: This posting was updated on Dec. 25, 2014.]