The Grammarphobia Blog

Vision things

Q: A friend invites me over to “look” at his new TV and “watch” a movie on it. Am I right in concluding that we “watch” something that has a duration, but “look” at something that’s momentary?

A: That’s pretty much the way we understand “watch” and “look” too. Generally, people watch something that’s happening, but look at something that’s stationary.

The verb “look” entered English more than a thousand years ago. In Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons, it was locian, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Its earliest meanings, in the 9th and 10th centuries, were to “direct one’s sight,”  to “direct one’s attention to,” and to “take care, make sure” (in the sense of seeing that something is done).

We get many meanings by adding prepositions and other words to “look,” resulting in such expressions as “look into,” “look over,” “look after,” “look sharp,” “look out,” and “look forward to.”

Others examples include “look askance,” “look down upon,” “look back on,” “look around”  (explore), “look daggers” (frown), “look in on” (visit), “look up” (find), and “look up to” (admire).

The verb “watch” ultimately comes from waeccan, an Old English word closely related to wacian (to wake or become awake).

When “watch”  first appeared in English in the 10th century, according to the OED, it meant to stay awake for devotional purposes – that is, to keep a vigil.

(You can see a parallel with the noun “wake,” which was the subject of a blog item of ours a few years ago.)

Later, in the 13th century, “watch” took on another meaning, “To be on the alert, to be vigilant; to be on one’s guard against danger or surprise,” the OED says.

A bit later it was used to mean to be on the lookout, or to keep something or someone in sight. That led to another meaning: to guard or keep under surveillance

It wasn’t until the 16th century that our modern sense of “watch” was recorded: “to keep (a person or thing) in view in order to observe any actions, movements, or changes that may occur.”

The first citation in the OED for this sense of the verb is from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1590), where Oberon says,  “Having once this juice, I’ll watch Titania, when she is asleepe, And drop the liquor of it in her eyes.”

People have been using “watch” this way ever since, meaning to keep one’s eyes (whether figuratively or literally) on something that moves or could change.

And people have been using “look” to mean simply to direct one’s gaze at something; there’s much less scrutiny involved.

That’s why “We’re being watched” sounds so much more ominous than “We’re being looked at.”

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