Peruse

v. to go through thoroughly

or

v. to skim or read in a leisurely way

Here is an example of a word that has become an auto-antonym through simple misuse.  Thanks to John Kuhner for bringing this one to my attention a long time ago.  The word, from its very origins circa 1533, has always meant to go through with great care.  One would peruse (Latin for “go through”) something, by definition, closely, most commonly a book.

Many people have learned the word incorrectly, and it is quite common to hear someone use it to mean to skim something, or to peruse in a leisurely, and not necessarily careful way.  This was my original understanding of the word.  The Webster and Collins dictionary use this as the final definition (often left to common-use definitions).  The Oxford dictionaries deny this as an acceptable definition at all.  My dictionary widget from Random House won’t give the second definition an entry, but it will acknowledge its common acceptance in a usage note.  It asserts that people who use it this way are wrong.  Dictionary.com’s entry, from the American Heritage Dictionary, also has a usage note.  In this they refer to a Star Chamberish “Usage Panel.”  The panel has slowly been wearing down on this secondary definition.  In 1988, 66% of the panel rejected this defintion.  In 1999, only 58% did.

Here is the problem.  If almost half of the expert-level English speakers (assuming this Usage Panel consists of “experts” and not schmos like me) use this word to mean contradictory things, than how could the word be of any use? At least with cleave, there is the addition of a preposition in the adhere definition.  If someone asks you to peruse something, there is no way to know the level of effort they are requesting.  Word purists will insist on the 1533 definition, but unless they are only planning to talk to each other, the problem remains.

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