Tuesday, September 1, 2015

pore (over)

Stamp collectors pore over specimens from the Brown University collections in the John Hay Library

I had occasion to use the phrase 'pore over' in something I was writing the other day, and though I was pretty sure I had the right spelling, it's one of those sort of things that I can sometimes get exactly wrong, so decided to look it up to be sure. While I was doing this though, I started wondering about the word 'pore' and where it had come from. After poring over a few etymology sites, here are the results:

No one knows.

The Online Etymology Dictionary tells us that its meaning of  'to gaze intently' has been in English since as far back as the early thirteenth century, but from there the trail fades out. It is not connected to any obvious word in Old French, unlike the more familiar 'pore', as in one of those openings in your skin, which for some reason has been more easily traced back to the Latin porus and the Greek pore, which literally means a passage or way. It's odd and a little frustrating that an identical sounding word has left these clues, and this one has not. The Online Etymology Dictionary records the speculation that it might be from a hypothetical Old English word purian, because there did exist the word spyrian, which means to investigate or examine, and the more familiar sounding spor, which meant a trace or a vestige, and seems to be related to the word 'spoor' which is still in use when discussing tracking, although that one came to us from the Dutch via South Africa. Again, check out the Online Etymology Dictionary.

We get a fair number of guesses over the origins of 'pore' over at English Language and Usage. There we learn that the Oxford English Dictionary suggests it might be related to the obsolete word pire, which meant to peer or gaze at, but they are quick to say that there is no reason to think that it has any connection to our own word 'peer'. Aye yi yi!

There's also a tangent leading off after the obscure word 'purblind', and I particularly liked this quote from none other than Francis Bacon, otherwise known as Shakespeare. (I'm kidding--I have no idea who wrote those plays and poems. Regardless of identity, they would still be a miracle.)

Pore-blinde men, see best in the Dimmer Light; And likewise have their sight Stronger neere hand, than those that are not Pore-blinde; And can Reade and Write smaller Letters. [...] But being Contracted, are more strong, than the Visuall Spirits of Ordinarie Eyes are; As when we see thorow a Levell, the sight is Stronger: And do is it, when you gather the eyelids somewhat close: And it is commonly seene in those that are Pore-blinde, that they doe much gather the Eye-lids together.
                                            Sylva Sylvarum or Natural History--1627

Interesting, but not really what we normally think of as Shakespearean prose.

Another thing that fascinates me is that to "pour over" may be gaining ground. One commenter over at Grammarist said that they had read the phrase 'pour over' in the Smithsonian (I think meaning the magazine rather than the museum). And another staunchly defends 'pour over' as perfectly legit:

I would say that using my eyes to pour over a book is exactly the right use of the word, where the eyes flow over the text like water covering every little word and detail in the text ensuring that nothing is missed.

And thus a folk etymology is born. Call me crazy, but I'm predicting that 'pour over' will eventually win the day.


  1. As a library employee I wish to go on record as being totally opposed to "pouring over". Books and liquids do not go together. Liquids and electronic devices aren't great companions, either. My eyes are tired after a long day of peering. I might have over-pored.

  2. All right, then. No to pouring over, yes to over pored.

  3. Reporters will occasionally have someone "pouring" over a book or some other text. What a mess.

  4. I think it's probably beyond untangling, Peter.

  5. I don't know about that. I come across the mistake no more than occasionally,

  6. Well, one of the things I read for this mentioned seeing it in the Smithsonian Magazine, which was extra funny because it was an article about water, so I'm thinking it has passed into general usage. Not as the only way but as a variant way that a lot of people don't notice.

  7. That's interesting because I suspect that the Smithsonian Magazine has, like other publications, come to regard copy editing as a disposable luxury in recent years. That, in turn, is interesting because it could lend a mundane economic dimension to language change.

  8. It was a little ambiguous whether the commenter meant the magazine or the museum but I suppose neither alternative is good.

  9. That commenter also does not know the difference between "pour" and "spill" or "cascade," so his folk etymology is baseless. Now more than ever, a "folk etymology" is a mistake with social ambitions and a graduate degree.

  10. I'd say it's just a mistake with a self-justifying explanation.