To read.

I bought a new phone and promptly got hooked on Duolingo again (ID: corinnethespin). I’m enjoying recapturing a bit of long-lost French and Spanish, but decided to challenge myself by adding German to the mix. 

The German verb lesen (to read) threw me. I expected an English cognate, not a French/Spanish/Latin one. That is, I expected a verb with a common root to “read,” not “lire” or “leer.” 

So where the hell did “read” come from?

Online Etymology Dictionary to the rescue:

read (v.) 

Old English rædan (West Saxon), redan (Anglian) “to advise, counsel, persuade; discuss, deliberate; rule, guide; arrange, equip; forebode; read, explain; learn by reading; put in order” (related to ræd, red “advice”), from Proto-Germanic *redan (source also of Old Norse raða, Old Frisian reda, Dutch raden, Old High German ratan, German raten “to advise, counsel, guess”), from PIE root *re(i)- “to reason, count” (source also of Sanskrit radh- “to succeed, accomplish,” Greek arithmos “number, amount,” Old Church Slavonic raditi “to take thought, attend to,” Old Irish im-radim “to deliberate, consider”). Words from this root in most modern Germanic languages still mean “counsel, advise.”

To advise, counsel, assess–I think this is just amazing. What this little bit of word history reveals is that what we consider the figurative sense of “to read” in modern English is really closer to the original use of the word. Literal and figurative uses of the verb have traded places in English over time.