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Peruse

The traditional definition of peruse is to read thoroughly or with great care. It does not traditionally mean to skim, to look through, or to browse. All authoritative English reference sources agree on this. But peruse is so often used as a synonym of browse that this secondary definition may someday gain acceptance. The change is not yet fully established, though, and many people still think of this newer use of peruse as wrong.

The word first appeared around the the end of the 15th century. It was formed by adding the prefix per-, which then meant thoroughly, to the verb use, so its original sense was to use thoroughly. The sense to go through carefully or examine developed soon thereafter. Examples of peruse used in the newer sense (to browse or to skim) are easily found in sources from the middle 20th century, but they are rare or nonexistent before then.

Writers in this century often use peruse to mean simply view or observe, suggesting neither thoroughness nor quickness. In these cases, the word is vague because we can’t know whether the author means it in the older sense or the newer one. It often could be taken to mean to look through at one’s own paceto look through while one is passing throughto look through when one has enough time, or to look through while engaged in something else.

Examples


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Newer sense

If you quickly peruse Emily Post, you’ll find many a page on dos and don’ts for guests. [SF Gate]

Starting at 5 p.m. Monday, women can peruse and purchase gadgets, as well as network and nosh. [Tulsa World]

George Michael and boyfriend Fadi Fawaz looked like a super cute couple as they perused the shops in Barcelona, Spain, earlier this week. [Daily Mail]

A quick perusal of the Cleveland Indians notes package today includes a stunning bit at the top of the first page. [Columbus Dispatch]

Traditional sense

Take the time to peruse these helpful tips so you can make the best impression on your sushi chef or dining companions the next time you’re downing some maki. [Lifehacker]

You should peruse the reports to see whether there are any obvious errors, such as accounts that aren’t yours or late payments when you paid on time. [LA Times]

I don’t want to be torn apart by pink-paper-perusing Maenads for spilling surprises I cannot proceed far without spilling. [Financial Times]

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Comments

  1. I do think it’s telling that the work is paired with “quick” in two of your contemporary examples. If the word had truly transformed into meaning browse or scan, then the addition of “quick” would be redundant. Instead it seems to indicate that a non-quick perusal would, in fact, be a more in-depth endeavor.

  2. reardensteel says:

    In the LA Times example above, I think they actually mean “skim” or “browse”.
    Notice the goal is to find “obvious” errors, not obscure errors.

    Sadly, obvious errors may be found by scanning, while uncovering obscure ones likely requires careful perusal.

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