English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

When words change their spots

Q: I see that the online Merriam-Webster has caved to the misuse of “peruse,” which is now apparently an antonym to itself. It means, or so the dictionary says, to examine or read “in a very careful way” (the traditional usage) as well as “in an informal or relaxed way.” Are linguists creating a new type of word?

A: Often a simple question calls for a complicated answer, and this is one of them.

Linguists and lexicographers don’t create new meanings for words. They merely catalog what they perceive as shifts in common usage—shifts that naturally occur as a language develops.

As for the verb “peruse,” it’s been used to mean “both careful and cursory reading” since the 16th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Take a look at a post about “peruse” that we wrote in 2006 and later updated to reflect recent dictionary definitions. As you can see, the usage you object to is well established.

It’s unfortunate that a language commentator in the early 1900s took a dislike to the word’s “cursory” sense, and that other usage guides unthinkingly followed.

But in the end, the general public took no notice and continued to use “peruse” in the old familiar way.

The truth is that common usage determines what’s “correct.” This is why alterations in meaning, spelling, and pronunciation are normal as a language develops.

Even Classical Latin, when it was a living, spoken language, underwent regular shifts and changes. It only became frozen when it died.

And once Latin words were absorbed into English and the Romance languages, those words continued to shape themselves to their new surroundings and came to reflect common usage in those societies.

For example, we’ve written on our blog about the assimilation of Latin words into English and the consequent shifts in pluralization.

Many words derived from Latin plurals have become accepted over the years as singular nouns in English: “ephemera,” “erotica,” “stamina,” “agenda,” “trivia,” “insignia,” “candelabra,” and more recently “data.”

What’s more, the word “media” now has both singular and plural usages in English, as we wrote in a post four years ago.

This naturalization process is normal and expected. Similarly, we should expect words to change their meanings. As this happens, they can even take on meanings that are opposed.

Sometimes these words retain both opposing senses, as with “cleave” and “sanction.” Such words are often called “contronyms,” and the reader has to judge the writer’s intent by the context.

(Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged, for example, feels that “literally” has joined this group and can be taken to mean “in effect.” However, we aren’t yet recommending that our readers adopt this looser usage.)

We’ve written about words with opposing meanings many times on our blog, including posts in 2008, 2010, and 2012.

At times a word’s earlier meaning is discarded and becomes obsolete. This process can move an originally affirmative word (like “pedant”) in a derogatory direction.

But just as often the reverse happens, and a derogatory word (like “terrific”) takes on a positive meaning.

Words change not only in meaning but in grammatical function. This kind of change, as when a noun becomes a verb, often upsets people, but it’s a natural way in which new words are formed.

As we’ve said before, this process is called conversion, and it’s given us a considerable portion of our modern English words.

Thanks for your question, and we hope we’ve shed a little light here.

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