or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


Reading the comments sections of someone's blog, I ran across the misspelling "paruse", and while I don't criticize people's spelling in casual contexts, I thought it was interesting, because the correct spelling, "peruse", is very suggestive. It's just hard to say of what, exactly. It seems clear that it ought to be broken into two equal halves, but it's nearly impossible to make any sense of those halves.

As we know, the Latin prefix "per-" means both "thorough" and "through", which are the same word (think of "thorough" as "through and through"), and so words beginning with "per-" often carry a sense of "completely" or "very"; "perfect", for example, is "per-" plus Latin "facere", "to do" (compare the Latin with French "faire", "to make, to do", and "perfect" with French "parfait"), so something that's perfect is done as much as it can be, brought to the point of unbetterable completion.

So "peruse" must surely be "per-" plus "-use", and that's what it is, although you'd never know it from its modern sense, "to read with great care: to examine closely". The earliest sense of peruse--and it's old, dating from the late fifteenth century--is, logically enough, "to use up: to go through". This expanded to its current meaning some fifty years later; the idea of completing one's reading or analysis of something. (Marvellously, the phrasal verb "to go through" carries two meanings in modern English, "to use up", the old sense of "peruse"--"We go through a bottle of Diet Coke a day"--and "to read closely", the new sense--"I go through the paperwork every evening".)


Post a Comment

<< Home