The Grammarphobia Blog

Out of sight!

Q: In a recent New York Times column, Dan Barry referred to the buying of property “sight unseen.” Shouldn’t he have said “site unseen,” since he was clearly referring to a piece of property? In fact, I’ve long wondered why we say “sight unseen” when the clear meaning is usually “site unseen.”

A: I have to disagree with you. A “site” is a location while a “sight” is a view. What this idiomatic usage means is that a “sight” (a view) has not been “seen.” When you buy something “sight unseen,” whether it’s a four-acre lot or a four-pound Chihuahua, you haven’t laid eyes on it.

The Oxford English Dictionary says “sight unseen” is an American expression for “without inspection” and dates from the 1890s. The OED’s earliest citation, from 1892, is in Dialect Notes, a journal of the American Dialect Society: “To trade knives sight unseen is to swap without seeing each other’s knife.”

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