Friday, May 09, 2008

Just peruse this. No. Peruse it instead.

I think it was in high school when a friend told me that peruse doesn't really mean to read through quickly. But I don't think it was until after I met Buffy -- and we were playing one of those nerdy-wordy games coming up with as many autoantonyms as possible -- that I threw away the idea of such right and wrong meanings.

What is the right meaning of peruse? Of cleave? Of bound Of let? Of sanction? Of overlook? Of dust? Of enjoin?* (Keep playing on your own time).

Not all these pairs of are explained in the same way. Some are a coincidental similarity of once-distinct words. Some are due to semantic bifurcation from a single meaning.

Both processes occur naturally. But semantic sentinels pick on them unequally. Of all the words I listed I've only heard complaints about peruse.

Most recent is this admonition from the Minnesota mavens at Grammar Grater.

It turns out the word peruse means something different than browse.

(Follow the above link to read the copy or listen to the show below. It's a bit cheesy but at least it's short.)

Our well-meaning counselor Luke Taylor cites the Oxford Dictionary of Current English and the Random House Unabridged Dictionary to claim that peruse denotes a careful reading. But by taking the sense of careful back to the 1500s Mr Taylor doesn't explain why the other meaning (to read quickly) that emerged in the 1500s isn't equally valid. (The episode is actually written by Jennifer H.)

The show eventually rests on advice based on Fowler's vague reminder of the obvious: the suitability[...]is a matter of discreet (and often delicate) contextual choice.

Some citations can't make clear the distinction between a quick reading and a deliberate reading by mere context. Who knows what each of the following means? There's no way of knowing.

'Peruse this.'
'Did you peruse it?'
'He perused the book.'

But some sentences make it clear by context.

'I don't have time to peruse it so I'll just skim it.'
'If you're too busy you can just peruse it and that'll be enough.'

The OED provides this 1589 citation of George Puttenham's use of 'peruse' with an illumination:

An Epitaph is..pithie, quicke and sententious for the passer by to peruse, and iudge vpon without any long tariaunce (Arte Eng. Poesie I. xxviii. 45).

That's clear enough.

The argument that peruse means 'read carefully' and that 'read quickly' is a later use not yet ratified by the gods of English is another example of the recency illusion. Both meanings are well established since roughly the same time. A usage note in the OED explains that peruse has been a broad synonym for read since the 16th cent., encompassing both careful and cursory reading.

I don't have a copy of Fowler's nearby but Taylor claims that the advice on suitability is from clarification on the use of formal words.

I don't know if I've previously heard the argument that a polysemous word should always mean one thing in a formal setting and another thing in a less formal setting. That might not be Taylor's actual point but he's approaching something like it. Why is there the specific mention that in formal settings unambiguous usage is important? Isn't ambiguity an issue wherever it comes up? Is this the old lie about formal language being more rule driven and careful than informal language?

This looks a lot like a wink and a nudge to an elitist shibboleth. I guess if you want to prove that you belong in a formal setting just make sure that you always use peruse the 'proper' way. Only those curs down in the galley use it as a synonym of browse. Because they don't care about language as much as we do.


*Buffy came up with enjoin.

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