English English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics Usage Word origin

Look, readers!

Q: I’ve noticed a lot of television commentators starting their comments with the word “look.” Is this something new? What’s the grammatical term to describe this?

A: What you’re describing is an idiomatic use of “look” that’s intended to get someone’s attention. And it’s nothing new. The Oxford English Dictionary says “look” has been “used to bespeak attention” for more than a thousand years.

The verb “look” is used here in the imperative—that is, as a command. But it isn’t meant literally (to direct one’s sight). Here it’s used figuratively in the same way English speakers have also used “see,” “behold,” and “lo.”

According to Oxford, the word often appears as part of a phrase, “look you,” meaning “mind this,” which “in representations of vulgar speech” is written as “look’ee.”

Another such phrase, “look here,” is described as “a brusque mode of address prefacing an order, expostulation, reprimand, etc.” This phrase is often written as “look-a-here” or, in regional American usage, “looky.”

The OED has many examples of all of these attention-getting usages. The earliest is from the Benedictine monk and scholar Ælfric of Eynsham, who used loca nu (Old English for “look now” or “behold”) around the year 1000.

And the usage has been common ever since. Many of the OED’s citations are from written speech in plays, stories, or novels.

In the early 1600s, Shakespeare used “looke you” and “looke thee heere” in two of his plays. Later in the century, the Duke of Buckingham, George Villiers, used “look you now” and “look you, Sir” several times in his play The Rehearsal (1672).

In the early 18th century, Richard Steele used similar constructions in his writings in the Tatler: “Look ye, said I, I must not rashly give my Judgment” (1709), and “Look’ee, Jack, I have heard thee sometimes talk like an Oracle” (1710).

Charles Dickens used such phrases in at least two of his novels: “Now, look here my man … I’ll have no feelings here” (Great Expectations, 1861); and “Now, lookee here, my dear” (Our Mutual Friend, 1865).

American examples are plentiful too. This OED citation is from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876): “look-a-here—maybe that whack done for him!”

The use of “look” by itself is more familiar to us today, as in these 20th-century examples:

“Look, my Bill doesn’t include any blanket condemnation of unofficial strikes” (from the former BBC journal The Listener, 1949).

“Look, we don’t have to sit here. We could go down to the beach” (from George Sims’s novel Hunters Point, 1973).

So the commentators you mention are merely continuing a long tradition. People who constantly begin sentences with “Look” can get on one’s nerves. But an occasional example here or there isn’t out of line.

Note: We had a posting on the blog a couple of years ago about the use of “look” as a quasi-transitive verb in an expression like “Never look a gift horse in the mouth.” 

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