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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 Apr 21 '13 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 Apr 21 '13 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 Apr 21 '13 at 18:23
  • @eykanal I think F'x's answer demonstrates superbly why this is a question for English Language & Usage and not here – EnergyNumbers May 11 '13 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 Apr 24 '14 at 22:09
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This is just a peculiarity of British English that read can have this particular meaning. The New Oxford American Dictionary says:

read
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 Apr 21 '13 at 20:00
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    But then he'd be a scripturer, not a lecturer! – JeffE Apr 21 '13 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. – ScienceSamovar Nov 4 '15 at 18:17
  • @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 Jan 11 '16 at 0:05

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