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Q From Joe Mihm, Vermont (a related question came from Mitchell Sandler): I always thought that peruse meant to skim over but now note that this is the second meaning in most dictionaries. The first meaning is to read very carefully. Are there many words that seem to have contradictory meanings like peruse?

A Let me start by discussing the meanings of peruse, since its sense is not as clear-cut as some usage guides and dictionaries might have us believe. It is now rather a literary word, one that passes the lips of comparatively few people these days. Even in writing it isn’t that common, though it seems to turn up more often in American publications than British ones.

Most of my (mainly British) dictionaries don’t give a meaning of “to skim over” at all, though some do have a looser sense of “to browse; to read in a leisurely way” as an alternative to the main sense of “to read thoroughly; to examine in detail”. One only, the New Oxford Dictionary of English, notes that “it is sometimes mistakenly taken to mean ‘read through quickly; glance over’ ”.

Much of the time, it’s hard to be sure exactly what modern users had in mind beyond borrowing it as a posh alternative to “read”, as here from a recent issue of the British Daily Telegraph: “Mr Mogg perused a battered copy of Watership Down and tried to look relaxed.” At times, it doesn’t even have to refer to reading, but can have a broader sense of “to look at, examine”, as here, from the same newspaper: “Many can be seen this summer perusing French and Italian fashions”. This is a survival of one of the older senses of the word in English, which had to do with working through a series of items one by one so as to deal with them in order. At one time it also had a meaning of travelling through an area observantly.

However, most people in the past couple of hundred years would associate peruse specifically with reading, but not always with the idea of reading something especially carefully — to Dr Johnson, who used it a lot, it meant no more than read (he defined it thus in his Dictionary), and it’s possible to find many other examples from older writings where that word would have done as well. Dr Murray, in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary more than a century ago, wrapped three slightly different meanings in one: “To read through or over; to read thoroughly or carefully; hence (loosely) to read”. Only the second corresponds to the main sense given in most modern dictionaries. You might argue that read itself already has something of the idea of careful attention about it, since we commonly start at the beginning of a text and work our way through to the end. But some authorities would argue that it is only certain grammarians and dictionary makers of the early twentieth century who have foisted on us the idea of thoroughness or care being the essence of the word.

To move on, at last, to your main question: the most obvious word that has contradictory meanings is the closely related scan, which many people take to mean “look at quickly”, instead of “examine in detail”. Its modern meaning may have been affected by its use in television and related technologies for the passage of an electron beam across the face of a display tube, in which the process is both very quick and very thorough. People sometimes seem to have focused on the first characteristic at the expense of the second.

Such words have variously been called auto-antonyms, contronyms, antagonyms, and Janus words (from the Roman god of doorways, who faces both ways).

Another example is sanction, which can either mean a threatened penalty for disobeying a law or rule, or official permission or approval for an action. Yet another is cleave, which can either mean to split or sever something, or to stick fast to. Some words have casual meanings that are the opposite of their main dictionary senses, like the slang sense of bad, meaning good, or the way that some people unthinkingly use literally when what they mean is “figuratively”.

Another example, of a slightly different sort, is inflammable, which really means “capable of burning”, but which some people mistakenly think means “incapable of burning”, a potentially disastrous error (hence the modern use of flammable in safety instructions). There are also some homophone pairs with opposite senses, such as raise and raze, which can be confused in speech.

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Page created 16 Sep 2000; Last updated 14 May 2002