The Grammarphobia Blog

Why are “overlook” and “oversee” opposites?

Q: An American blogger living in Panama recently posed this question: “Why do ‘overlook’ and ‘oversee’ mean the opposite?” I have no idea, but I bet you will!

A: The story behind “overlook” and “oversee” is an interesting example of how words develop over the centuries in our changing language.

The verb “oversee” has historically meant to watch over. Originally it was used in a rather literal way, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

When it first showed up in Old English in the early 900s (as ofersawon, in Beowulf), it meant “to look down upon; to look at from, or as if from, a higher position.”

The OED says the verb “overlook” had a similar meaning when it came along around 1400: “to look upon from above; to survey; to view openly.”

But by the mid-1400s, “overlook”  was being used to mean “pass over without noticing.” In the meantime, “oversee” had evolved to mean what it does today – to supervise.

And by the way, “supervise” (from the late 1500s) also had the original meaning “to look over.” It’s a combination of “super,” from the Latin for “above,” and “vise,” from the Latin videre (see). Later, it came to mean “to have the oversight of.”

We don’t want to conclude our discussion of the verb “oversee” by overlooking the noun “oversight,” a contronym that encompasses opposing meanings. It can mean either an unintentional omission or watchful care.

Other two-faced words include “cleave” (which can mean to cling together or to divide) and “sanction” (to approve or to forbid). We’ve written several blog items about this phenomenon, including one in 2008 and another in 2007.

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