Oxford vs. Oxford

Why yesterday’s poll on the meaning of “peruse”?

Well, a respected friend of mine recommended I write a post on the way people mistakenly use “peruse” when they should use “skim.”

Unfortunately, my good friend’s complaint smelled to me like Lexicographical Prescriptivism! “LP” is one of the great foes of this blog—because it is such an enemy of good Bible interpretation! So I looked into the matter.

Get out your LP detector, because here’s the New Oxford American Dictionary’s usage note on “peruse” (the NOAD comes standard on every Mac and Kindle):

The verb peruse means ‘read thoroughly and carefully.’ It is sometimes mistakenly taken to mean ‘read through quickly, glance over,’ as in: later documents will be perused rather than analyzed thoroughly, a sentence that technically makes no sense.

What business does a dictionary have telling us what a word should mean? Does that question shock you? Then you’ve fallen into Lexicographical Prescriptivism. Here’s the Oxford English Dictionary’s usage note, which (in agreement with Merriam-Webster) avoids LP by doing its job, namely polling English users:

Modern dictionaries and usage guides, perhaps influenced by the word’s earlier history in English, have sometimes claimed that the only ‘correct’ usage is in reference to reading closely or thoroughly…. However, peruse has been a broad synonym for read since the 16th cent., encompassing both careful and cursory reading; Johnson defined and used it as such. The implication of leisureliness, cursoriness, or haste is therefore not a recent development, although it is usually found in less formal contexts and is less frequent in earlier use (see quot. 1589 for an early example). The specific sense of browsing or skimming emerged relatively recently, generally in ironic or humorous inversion of the formal sense of thoroughness. Cf. SCAN v. for a similar development and range of senses.

I think yesterday’s poll demonstrates that among the (predominantly young?) readers of this blog, the once ironic use has become the standard use. An older generation may constitute a separate usage community (hence Dr. Bob Bell’s predilection for the older use?). But I think you’ll actually invite misunderstanding, even with many of them, if you try to use that older sense. Two contradictory but related senses are difficult to maintain except among pedants like me and you (if you’ve read this far!). The usage panel in my brain agrees with the poll: the “skim” sense is winning overwhelmingly.

The moral of the story is this: words mean whatever most people mean when they use them. If enough people mean something that is technically wrong, then that something is no longer wrong.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

4 thoughts on “Oxford vs. Oxford”

  1. I side with you on peruse.

    But I want to claim victory in a discussion we had many years ago about whether the OED or the NOAD were better (I think I was trying to justify spending $200 on the OED). I now feel vindicated 🙂

  2. Though I’m late coming into the conversation, here goes. I am grieved to think that if peruse looses the meaning “to read carefully,” English will have lost one of its crisper words. “Read this document carefully” is more clumsy than “Peruse this document.” But, the final word is usage. Are there any reasons for prescribing lexicographically? 🙂

  3. I think that was the OED vs. the AHD, actually. And the AHD got this one right, as I recall! =)

    Really, what this reveals is that every dictionary is fallible because every lexicographer is.

    I wish I myself had a much better eye for the discipline and more knowledge of linguistics. I have seen their value for Bible interpretation, and the study of language glorifies the God who created it.

    A book recommendation for anyone dedicated enough to read this comment: The History of NT Lexicography by John A. L. Lee.

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