'Peruse' is more flexible than some people think

Recently I learned that pretty much everyone who’s ever opined about the word “peruse” was wrong, kind of. And the people who corrected the people who opined wrongly were also wrong, kind of. And that I, myself, never quite understood the real deal with “peruse,” even though I thought I had it all figured out.

Here’s the most common way I see “peruse” used these days: “Peruse the charming boutiques.” “Peruse the delicious menu options.” “Peruse the aisles.” In other words, I see “peruse” used to mean “browse.”

Ten or 20 years ago, the only “peruses” I ever noticed referred to reading, not looking at merchandise. From here, the controversy heats up because there are different ways to read something. You can read something closely and carefully, you can skim it casually, or you can read it while paying just the normal amount of attention. And in the early 1900s, people started saying that only one of those is correct.

“Peruse should not be used when the simple ‘read’ is meant,” argued author Frank Vizetelly in the 1906 “A Desk-Book of Errors in English,” which is cited in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. “Peruse,” Vizetelly argued, means “to read with care and attention … to examine with critical care and in detail.”

The idea caught on, and within a few decades this rule was standard in prescriptivist handbooks of English like Eric Partridge’s influential 1942 guide “Usage and Abusage.” “Peruse is not synonymous with ‘to read,’ for it means to read thoroughly, read carefully from beginning to end,” Partridge wrote. “One peruses a contract, one reads an (ordinary) advertisement.”

The idea stuck, and to this day anyone who uses “peruse” to mean “skim” or “read” can draw sneers from adherents of this long-held belief.

Strangely, though, it seems Vizetelly based this rule on nothing but his own beliefs. “While we cannot be sure, it appears that this notion of the correct use of ‘peruse’ was Vizetelly’s own invention,” Merriam’s explains. “It was certainly born in disregard of dictionary definitions of the word and in apparent ignorance of the literary traditions on which those dictionary definitions were based.”

Read more in my recent column.

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