I’m still reading Kotkin’s Stalin (I’ve just gotten to the end of his account of the Civil War and am setting it aside to read Evan Mawdsley’s The Russian Civil War, which has been sitting on my shelf since 2010 and which I am enjoying greatly), and I’ve discovered he’s very fond of an obscure word which I think I had seen before but whose meaning I had forgotten, perlustration (and its related verb perlustrate). He sometimes uses it in a way that makes its meaning evident (“Russia’s police chiefs discovered their mail was perlustrated, too…”), but in a sentence like “In summer 1919, through informants and perlustration, the Cheka had belatedly hit upon an underground network known as the National Center…” it’s not clear at all. Since it’s not in any but the largest dictionaries (Webster’s Third International and the OED), I thought as a public service I’d provide the OED’s definitions and a few citations (entry updated December 2005):
1. The action or an act of inspecting, surveying, or viewing a place thoroughly; a comprehensive survey or description.
1640 G. Watts tr. Bacon Of Advancem. Learning v. ii. 220 The Art of Invention and Perlustration [L. ars..inveniendi et perlustrandi] hetherto was unknown.
1657 J. Howell (title) Londinopolis; an Historicall Discourse or Perlustration of the City of London.
1798 A. Holmes Life Ezra Stiles 330 The examination of all nations, and an universal perlustration of the terraqueous globe.
1946 L. P. Hartley Sixth Heaven v. 98 The interest of seeing whether he was before or behind his schedule..helped..the process of perlustration.
1972 Oxf. Univ. Gaz. 102 Suppl. No. 8. 47 The Curators conducted a perlustration of the Library on 29 May—the first ever at Rhodes House.
1995 L. Garrett Coming Plague (new ed.) vi. 176 The perlustration was compounded by widespread fear of contagion in Philadelphia.
2. The action of examining a document for purposes of surveillance, etc.; spec. the inspection of correspondence passing through the post. Also attrib.
1839 Times 3 Apr. 6/2 He [sc. Grand Duke Constantine of Poland] had..in the Belvedere, a cabinet noir, or perlustration office..for the examination of all letters.
1896 Edinb. Rev. July 142 The ‘perlustration’ of papers he held to be quite as defensible as the bribing of office-clerks.
1967 Times 15 Mar. 6/5 Mr. Hugh Fraser..asked the Prime Minister whether cables and radio telegrams sent by M.P.s were privileged from perlustration by the security services.
1992 New Republic 20 Apr. 31/3 It will be written in English, this letter, and it won’t be worth perlustration.
(It’s from Latin perlustrāre ‘to travel through; to scrutinize,’ from lustrāre ‘to purify by lustral rites; to review, survey,’ from lustrum ‘a purificatory sacrifice made by the censors for the people once in five years, after the census had been taken.’) It’s theoretically a perfectly good word, if a tad fusty and sesquipedalian, but it has two problems. The first is the double meaning; if it meant either ‘inspecting’ or ‘reading other people’s mail,’ fine, but meaning both makes it much less useful. The second is its rarity — why use a fusty and sesquipedalian word if hardly anyone will know what it means? Still, we could use a single word for ‘opening and reading other people’s mail,’ and if a lot of people started using it that way and it became familiar, it would be a net positive. So I guess I applaud Mawdsley for doing his bit to make that happen.