I used the phrase "pore over" the other day and realized that I have no idea where it came from (or how to spell it - I originally thought it was "pour over").

After looking it up, Merriam Webster says to pore means, "to read or study attentively —usually used with over" from the Middle English "pouren", first used in the 13th century.

What type of origin does pouren have and what does it mean?

  • 2
    OED say "Origin unknown. Perhaps related to pire". Apparently pire is an obsolete/regional word meaning to peer, look closely; to gaze, look around, but OED say they see no justification for assuming pire has any direct relation to peer. The "phrasal verb" aspect of to pore over wasn't always there - the preposition often wasn't included in earlier usages, but it's almost always present today. Mar 7 '15 at 21:11
  • pore (v.) "gaze intently," early 13c., of unknown origin, with no obvious corresponding word in Old French. Perhaps from Old English *purian, suggested by spyrian "to investigate, examine," and spor "a trace, vestige." see, etymonline "pore"
    – user98990
    Mar 7 '15 at 23:28

The verb to pore means to examine something closely; in great detail. It can also refer to meditating over something, and to be fully absorbed in a subject. We usually associate the expression to pore over with academics who are passionate about their fields, and students who study obsessively before an important exam.

a scholar poring over a rare old manuscript

She spends her evenings poring over textbooks

Especially in the past, individuals who burned the midnight oil reading fine print would inevitably suffer from eyestrain. Working in poor light was thought to be a cause of myopia (short-sightedness) and an occupational hazard. Even today a common explanation for myopia is near-work. And there are studies which claim that myopic children have higher IQs.

In several online references, I found an obsolete term purblind which may explain the meaning behind pore.

The OED provides the following definitions: 1. Quite or totally blind. Obs. rare. 2. Of impaired or defective vision, in various senses: a. Blind of one eye (obs.). b. Short-sighted, near-sighted. c. (Sometimes app.) Long-sighted, dim-sighted from age. d. Partially blind; almost blind; dim-sighted, generally, or without particularization.

In 1627 Francis Bacon's Sylva Sylvarum, or Natural History was published. (Emphasis mine)

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.

Therefore pore-blinde people were not considered to be "pure" blind and according to Francis Bacon, they were in fact more able and skilled at reading minuscule print than normal-sighted people.

From An Universal Etymological Dictionary... By Nathan Bailey (1757)

To PORE [... because pore-blind People put things they look at close to their Eyes] to look close to

PUR'BLIND short-sighted

From the same author, Dictionarium Britannicum... printed twenty years earlier

To PO'KE [prob. of pacher, F.] to rake or puddle with a stick, etc. also to pore purblindly

A New Universal Etymological, Technological, and Pronouncing Dictionary of the English language. (1858) By John Craig

PORER, po'rur, s. One who pores or studies diligently.

From an 1882 book titled Folk Etymology. A Dictionary of Corrupted Words, we read the following:

enter image description here

It seems probable that the verb pore derived from the common misspelling of purblind, pore blind. From Folk Etymology the following extracts appear to affirm this hypothesis:

"The dust or powder heerof [of puffballs] is very dangerous for the eies, for it hath beene often seen that divers have beene pore blinde ever after, when some small quantitie thereof hath beene blowen into their eies.— Gerard, Herball, fol. p. 1387 (1597)


The visage wan, the pore blind sight,
The toil by day, the lamp at night.

Sir Wm. Blackstone, (1723-1780), The Lawyer's Farewell to His Muse.

  • This makes a whole lot of sense to me. Thanks for the great answer! Mar 8 '15 at 21:05

To pore over. As a verb, pore origin is unclear but it could be related to pire ( with roughly the same meaning) a term comparable with Low German piren. As a noun pore derives from Latin porus.

  • The verb “pore,” according to our Associated Press-sanctioned Webster’s New World College Dictionary Fourth Edition, means “to gaze intently” or “to read through carefuly” or “to think deeply and thoroughly.” It is often paired with the preposition “over,” though “through” is also acceptable.

    • It comes from the Middle English “poren,” according to that dictionary, though the OED lists “poore,” “poure,” “pouri,” “power” as its Middle English forms.

    • The word’s true origins are unknown, though it could be related to the verb “pire,” which means the same thing and is comparable to the Low German “piren.”

    • The word is not, however, related to the noun “pore,” which comes to English from Middle French at the end of the 13th century, which in turn comes from the Latin “porus.”

  • The verb “pour,” for its part, is completely unreleated any of these. It comes from, maybe, Middle French’s “purer,” meaning to decant.

  • And let’s not forget the adjective and noun “poor.” That comes from the Middle English “pawre” and various other forms. The word’s origins are Anglo-Norman in “pover,” “pore,” “povere,” “poevere” and “puvre” and Old French in “povre.”

(from Becker's Online Journal)

  • 1
    How does pore relate to poor as in the last bullet? Mar 7 '15 at 23:44
  • Pity the pour student!
    – Hot Licks
    Mar 8 '15 at 18:41
  • Reading your answer, the verb peer at came to my mind. Is it out of sudden or there is a deep connection between piren and peering? Nov 17 '16 at 16:07

I can't add any more information regarding etymology, but I've been trawling the printed word that is available on the internet, and have found the term "poring over" used in 1670, by Thomas Case (an important 17th Century Puritan), in his snappily-titled Mount Pisgah: or, a prospect of heaven. Being an exposition on the fourth chapter of the first epistle of St. Paul to the Thessalonians, from the 13th. verse, to the end of the chapter. Divided into three parts

About half-way down page 158, the following passage is found:

Thou art a man, or woman of sorrows, it were thy wisdom, as well as thy duty, to look out for some spiritual Cordials, and not to reject soul refreshment when it is offered; say not to thy comforters, with the Prophet Isaiah, Look away from me, I will weep bitterly, labour nor to comfort me, and thy case will not bear it : He was weeping the Churches tears, thou art poring over a private personal trial, consider in so doing, thou art but preparing new causes of sorrow for thine own soul, and when thou hast, done sorrowing for thy loss, thou wilt begin anew to sorrow for thy sin in so sorrowing.

HOWEVER, I've just discovered that "poring" is used in The First part of the Contention betwixt the two famous Houses of Yorke and Lancaster etc. (author disputed), which was first published in 1594. The relevant phrase is said by the Queene:

My Lord of Suffolke, you may see by this,
The Commons loves unto that haughtie Duke
That seekes to him more then to King Henry,
Whose eies are alwaies **poring** on his booke.

The edition I've linked is published 1600, but the play was registered with a publisher in 1594.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.