three teddy bears reading a bookWhile writing my last blog post, I looked up the word peruse to make sure I was using it correctly in this sentence:

“(The inquisitive one wasn’t sure which, having spent the previous few hours perusing poetry instead of store ads.)”

According to dictionary.com, peruse has several definitions:

  1. to read through with thoroughness or care
  2. to scan or browse
  3. to read

The site also provides these British definitions:

  1. to read or examine with care; study
  2. to browse or read through in a leisurely way

Hmm. So peruse can mean “study a text thoroughly” or “skim through a text lightheartedly.” Aren’t those opposites? And, just to keep the waters as muddy as possible, the term can also mean simply “read”—so it can mean either extreme, or no extreme at all. No wonder I was having trouble keeping the word’s definition straight in my mind!

Now that I think about it, though, the ambiguity of peruse makes it ideal for its particular use in my tale. Surely the inquisitive one would’ve perused poetry in the “study closely” sense, but would’ve perused store ads in the “scan leisurely” sense. But I needed only the one word. (How economical!)

Another interesting fact: the “read carefully” sense (first usage in the 1530s) is much older than the “read casually” sense (first usage in the 1800s). So the next time you’re reading a text written in the 1700s or earlier and encounter the word peruse, you will know which sense is meant without having to rely on context.

For more fun with ambiguity, look up comprise on dictionary.com and read the Usage note.

Can you think of other words that are ambiguous in having opposite definitions? I would love to hear of more examples.

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