English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Why ‘sightseeing,’ not ‘siteseeing’?

Q: Since both “sight” and “site” can refer to a place, why do we use the first one, not the second, in the term “sightseeing”?

A: The word “sight” in the sense of something worth seeing is derived from a prehistoric Germanic term for “to see.” It appeared in Old English hundreds of years before Middle English borrowed “site” from the Latin term for a location.

With that history in mind, it’s not at all surprising that we now use “sight” for a place of interest to a “sightseer,” and “site” for a place to put up a building, hold an event, read the news online, and so on.

Despite their different meanings, the two terms can sometimes refer to the same place, as in “The site [location] of the Battle of Gettysburg is a sight [something worth seeing] that attracts many sightseers.”

Before giving some early examples, we should mention that spelling varied widely in the Middle Ages. In The Canterbury Tales (circa 1386), for example, Chaucer spells “sight” as “site” in “The Clerk’s Tale” and as “sighte” in “The Knight’s Tale.”

The arrival of the printing press in England in the late 15th century and the spread of printing in the 16th and 17th helped standardize English orthography, including the spellings of “sight” and “site.”

The older of the terms, “sight,” is ultimately derived from a prehistoric Indo-European root reconstructed by linguists as sek(to perceive or see), according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

This ancient root led to the prehistoric Germanic root sehwan (to see) and the Old English noun sihð (a vision or spectacle), the ancestor of our  modern word “sight.” The Old English noun was pronounced like “sixth” (the final letter in sihð was the runic letter ð, or eth, which sounded like “th”).

The earliest example of “sight” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a 10th-century Old English gloss, or translation, of the Latin from Mark 9:8 in the Lindisfarne Gospels, dating from around 700:

“[He] bebead ðæm þætte ne ænigum … ða sihðo gesægdon” (“[He] commanded them that no one … be told of the sight”).

The word “sight” was also spelled “siþe,” “sith,” “syth,” “sythte” “sighð” “sihȝeðe” “ziȝþe,” “zyȝþe,” “syhte,” “sichte,” “seȝt,” “siȝhte, “sygte,” “syghte,” “sighte,” and so on before “sight” was established in Modern English.

As for “site,” it’s ultimately derived from the Indo-European root tkei- (to settle, dwell, be at home), source of the Latin situs (position of a thing). Middle English borrowed it in the late 14th century from the Anglo-Norman site (position, location).

The OED’s first English citation for “site” is from John Trevisa’s translation of De Proprietatibus Rerum (On the Properties of Things), an encyclopedic Latin reference compiled in the mid-1200s by the medieval scholar Bartholomeus Anglicus.

The word “site” is spelled “sight” in this passage: “Þe water addre … infecteþ þe place þat he glydeþ inne and makeþ þe sight smoky” (“the water adder infecteth the place that he glideth in and maketh the site smoky”).

“Site” was spelled variously as “sighte,” “siȝt,” “siȝte,” “siht,” “siyt,” “syȝte,” “syhte,” “syyt,” “site,” “cite,” and so on before “site” was established in Modern English.

As for “sightseeing,” it first appeared in the early 19th century. The OED describes it as a compound of the nouns “sight” and “seeing,” and defines it as “the action or occupation of seeing sights.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from an Oct. 21, 1824, entry in the journal of Reginald Heber, the Anglican Bishop of Calcutta: “Morning rides, evening sight-seeing” (published in Heber’s Narrative of a Journey Through the Upper Provinces of India, 1828).

Many people are led astray by “sight” and “site” because they’re homonyms, words with the same spelling or pronunciation but different meanings and origins. In this case, the pronunciation is the same and the spelling similar—a double whammy!

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.