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What is the meaning of 'peruse'?

Oct 31, 2011

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When you peruse something, does it mean that you have read something very quickly? Or that you have read it very thoroughly?

Confusingly it has come to mean both things. The original meaning was 'to use up completely', from per meaning 'all throughout' and use, and so the first meaning was 'to examine thoroughly'. From there the word was used in the context of reading and to peruse came to be a synonym for 'to read', whether that was a thorough reading or a quick skim. So you can peruse (read) a legal document looking for all the fine print, or you can peruse (read) the Sunday papers barely glancing at the headlines. It has been thus since the 1500s.

It is possible to see the thread in this and to understand how we have arrived at what appears to be two contradictory meanings. This is not the same as infamous coming to mean 'famous' or disinterested coming to mean 'uninterested', where the transfer begins in confusion and ends in a hopeless muddle.

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(Image courtesy of Pixabay)


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