When reading about people who have studied at Oxford the word "read" is used instead of study. Example:

"He read Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford"

Why when discussing study at Oxford (and maybe other universities) is the word "read" used?

  • This is just a slight difference between American and British English. The one that confuses me is "giving an exam".
    – StrongBad
    Commented Apr 21, 2013 at 13:45
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    That question would also be well suited on English Language & Usage. However, since it's also about academia, I suppose it is on topic here too.
    – F'x
    Commented Apr 21, 2013 at 14:29
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    @F'x, and everyone else who suggests migration - The first question to ask when considering migration is, "is the question on-topic here?" Here, the answer is "yes", so no migration necessary.
    – eykanal
    Commented Apr 21, 2013 at 18:23
  • @eykanal I think F'x's answer demonstrates superbly why this is a question for English Language & Usage and not here
    – 410 gone
    Commented May 11, 2013 at 1:56
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    To be fair, "read" is only used by some at Oxford and Cambridge in the UK these days (perhaps Durham too, but very seldom outside of these two or three institutions). It usually has the effect, intentional or not, of appearing pompous.
    – Noldorin
    Commented Apr 24, 2014 at 22:09

2 Answers 2


This is just a peculiarity of British English that read can have this particular meaning. The New Oxford American Dictionary says:

3. chiefly Brit. study (an academic subject) at a university: I'm reading English at Cambridge
[ no obj. ]: he went to Manchester to read for a BA in Economics.

So, it's more about language itself than the official title of the diploma or an academic custom.

— Hey, wait, but where does this idea come up to associate “read” with “learn, understand”? Surely there is a reason? And why is it English only?

Well, as it turns out, the meaning of “learn, understand, think, explain” is actually the original meaning of the Old English word from which we inherited read! The Old English word is rædan (“explain”, amongst its meanings), from Proto-Germanic raedanan, from Proto-Indo-European root re(i)- (“to reason, count”).

Now, in many languages, the words derived from this root kept their original meaning. In German, raten means “to advise, counsel”; in Icelandic, ráða means “advise, decide, solve”.

Now, at some point something in Old English went sideways. Wiktionary states very clearly:

The development from “advise, interpret” to “interpret letters, read” is unique to English

Etymonline is more specific:

Transference to “understand the meaning of written symbols” is unique to Old English and (perhaps under English influence) Old Norse raða. Most languages use a word rooted in the idea of "gather up" as their word for "read" (cf. French lire, from Latin legere).

Now, the original meaning of the word read is retained in some contexts in British English, but was lost in other forms of the English language, such as American English.

As a summary, the hard question is not really “why can read mean study”, but instead: why did read come to mean “read”?

(source for the above: my memory, which is backed by the most excellent Etymonline)

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    It's always confused be how the students are reading and the lecturer is a reader. By my logic he should then be a writer ;)
    – gerrit
    Commented Apr 21, 2013 at 20:00
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    But then he'd be a scripturer, not a lecturer!
    – JeffE
    Commented Apr 21, 2013 at 21:14
  • I want to add something, though it is probably doesn't have connection to the question, but maybe some linguistic borrowing here. In Russian language there is a phrase "Read a lecture", this is word by word translation. It basically means that you are reading the lecture material out loud for the audience, even if you don't actually read anything, just having normal lecture. So at least in Russian language there is a meaning of a word "read" in a sense that you "teaching others by reading(maybe not literally) them some stuff". Again, not sure if applied here, I am not a linguist. Commented Nov 4, 2015 at 18:17
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    @ScienceSamovar, in the olden times (before printing, and also after) the reader was supposed to read (the text aloud) for the students to write down longhand. Perhaps this comes from here...
    – vonbrand
    Commented Jan 11, 2016 at 0:05
  • I'm not sure this answers the 'why' part. In my experience, this is quite an Oxford & Cambridge thing, and quite posh, public school thing. That might be because there are lots of public school educated people at Oxford and Cambridge. Not certain.
    – innisfree
    Commented Mar 17, 2023 at 14:18

The respondents so far have missed a crucial point. When one ‘reads’ for a degree in the sandstone Unis in the UK, it is different to a normal course of study. Reading for a degree involves few lectures or tutorials, and consists mainly of being allotted texts by an academic supervisor, who then discusses what you have learned, and possibly sets essays for you to demonstrate logical argument and research. There’s no classroom study as such. It’s more about analytical thinking to earn your ‘Oxbridge’ degree.

  • While I have received only a master's and not a bachelor's at Oxbridge, my experience is that this overstates the case. Lectures and tutorials seem to me to be central to the Oxbridge experience, which is moreover assessed by exams not too dissimilar from those seen in the US system. Commented Dec 27, 2020 at 2:08

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