Perlustration.

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.

Comments

  1. The related lustration is used in Eastern Europe for purging members of a previous (e.g. Communist) regime from the government. I always assumed it shared an etymology with luster, as in “bringing things to light.” I guess not — that one comes from lūstrāre and ultimately of course lūx. Now I’m trying to figure out which of these roots is in illustration, but the OED is unclear in this regard.

  2. I guess the author had been steeped in Russian and Eastern European sources so much that he assumed the word would be familiar to Anglo-American monoglots. No Russian with any knowledge of history can be ignorant of the word перлюстрация, and no Ukrainian with any knowledge of current politics can be ignorant of the word люстрация.

  3. CuConnacht says:

    FM, I’m oretty sure that “illustration” is from lux, as “illumination” (think illuminated manuscript) is from lumen.

  4. FM: Illustrare is definitely from lux, cf. Lewis & Short. The story with lustrum is more confusing, because there is a homonym meaning ‘slough, bog, morass, puddle’ < luere ‘loose, let go, release, wash’, and traditionally the homonymy was taken to be old polysemy. But the lux etymology of lustrum is recognized by Etymonline as an alternative view.

  5. I guess the author had been steeped in Russian and Eastern European sources so much that he assumed the word would be familiar to Anglo-American monoglots. No Russian with any knowledge of history can be ignorant of the word перлюстрация

    Thanks, that makes sense! So it’s another example of the “echelon” problem. (See also “publicist.”)

  6. there is a homonym meaning ‘slough, bog, morass, puddle’ < luere ‘loose, let go, release, wash’

    There are two etymologically distinct verbs luere in Latin: one means ‘loose, release, etc.’ and also ‘pay’ (cf. Gk. λύω; its compound solvere < se-luere gives English solve, dissolve, etc.); the other, less common one means ‘wash’ (cf. Gk. λούω). Lustrum ‘bog’ is presumably from the latter.

  7. “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.”

    If you are the secret police, inspecting the mail means opening it, and yes, it will be other people’s mail. How is this a double meaning?

  8. No, no, “inspecting” doesn’t go with “other people’s mail” — it’s an entirely separate meaning. See the quote from the OED above.

  9. The first, more general definition has “inspecting”, the second has “inspection”. I take the second to be a more specific use than the first.

  10. Sure, historically it’s a development from the first, but in practice it’s a different sense.

  11. Upon reading your first example (“Russia’s police chiefs discovered their mail was perlustrated, too”), where the meaning is as you say fairly evident, my mind immediately offered a half-baked folk etymology tableau of mail-perlustrators holding envelopes up to strong incandescent light bulbs and using the light passing through to see what was inside. (Bonus points if you can somehow link “pearlescent” to the quality of light coming through an envelope.) I have missed my true calling as an 18th-century armchair etymologist.

  12. Interestingly, in Italian “perlustrare” can only mean “to inspect, to view a place thoroughly” and it is not a abstruse word: it is actually quite common in detective stories.

  13. That is interesting; it fascinates me that different languages derive different senses from the same Latin/Greek etyma.

  14. Further to Agostino’s comment: according to Duden, perlustrieren is an Austrian German word having (nowadays ?) only the meaning “detain and frisk a person”. Modifying his words slightly, “to inspect, to view a person thoroughly”. Perhaps David could say whether it is “abstruse” there.

    As a noun, the official legal term for this in Germany is Leibesvisitation. The slang verb corresponding to “frisk” is filzen.

  15. Do they have a word for ‘opening and reading other people’s mail’?

  16. David Marjanović says:

    I know perlustrieren as Stu describes it; haven’t seen it used in a long time, though – it’s obsolete.

    Do they have a word for ‘opening and reading other people’s mail’?

    Nope.

  17. I seem to remember Natan Sharansky using an odd word to describe the opening of people’s mail in Fear No Evil. I don’t remember if it was “perlustration” or something else, and I think my father stole my copy of the book.

  18. I just searched the Google Books version of the book, and he doesn’t use that word, though he does talk about “confiscation” a lot.

  19. Do they have a word for ‘opening and reading other people’s mail’?

    Nope.

    That must have been really inconvenient in East Berlin, given that (as we all know) people can’t even conceive of, much less perform, an action unless they have a word for it.

  20. They used the Russian word, duh.

  21. I understand that the Russians have twenty-four different words for “opening other people’s mail”.

    (exit, dragged off in a tumbril by furious etymologists)

  22. Do they have a word for ‘opening and reading other people’s mail’?
    The word that roughly covers it is перехват – interception. Though it mostly refers to electronic communications, including radio.

  23. The question was about German, not Russian.

  24. ah! sorry

  25. Well, the German equivalent to перехват would be Abfangen, and like this and “interception” it can be used for things like radio messages as well.

  26. William Gottlieb says:

    In light of origins related to rites of purification, it’s a perfect word for the reading of citizens’ mail by the Checka/OGPU, Isn’t their perlustration part of the ideological purification of the people, a step leading to the removal of the toxin of counter revolution.from peoples’ thoughts?

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