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A post to pore over

October 24, 2019

My good friend David Alterman has just asked if I know anything about the origin of the verb to pore over something. Yes, interesting. It is a highly specific word. There are only certain things one can pore over. You could pore over a document, a contract, a crossword, or a textbook. But you wouldn’t pore over a comic or a Jack Reacher novel. Poring over suggests very close examination of some very difficult text. It evokes an image of a bowed head, eyes only an inch or two away from the page.

I looked it up in my great big Compact Oxford English Dictionary, the one that has to be heaved up with two hands and read with a magnifying glass (it has to be pored over, in fact). There I learned that the word dates back to Middle English. It occurs in Chaucer, where it is spelt poure. But its origins are unclear. There are no recorded uses of it in Old English or Old French. It could be related to the Old English word pire, of which the modern word peer might be a descendant.

A bit of googling brought up one or two other possibilities: some say it is related to spy or spoor; and it’s possible that the word purblind, meaning nearly blind, was originally pore-blind, meaning nearly blind from poring over things.

It has nothing to do with the pores of one’s skin. And that’s all I have. Is that OK, Dave?

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  1. Mark Brafield permalink

    That’s interesting. A Canadian friend of ours recently sent us an email saying that she was ‘pouring over’ some documents. At first I laughed – obviously – at how anyone could be so stupid as to make such an elementary mistake, but on reflection, as a Canadian she would have grown up in a French-speaking country. Perhaps she was closer to the source than I thought ?

    On a similar subject, at law school, our very old-fashioned conveyancing teacher – a retired sergeant-major type, built like a cannonball with stubbly hair, a tweed jacket and Doc Martens – asked us what was the first thing you did if someone sent you a batch of documents.

    We all looked blank, until he bellowed at the top of his voice that we would PERUSE the documents. When some brave soul ventured that this was just the same thing as reading, wasn’t it ?, he went even redder in the face and bellowed even louder that only ordinary people read documents, lawyers PERUSE.

  2. Simon Carter permalink

    Spike Milligan had a story about a sergeant in the army saying something like “Tonight there will be a talk about Keats and I don’t suppose any of you ignorant b*stards even knows what a Keat is”.

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