6 thoughts on “Overlook vs Oversee

  1. MY guess:

    1, Overlook= to miss or fail to see, to un intestinally fail to observe or perform a task, to look at in excess.

    2, Oversee= to provide oversight, to supervise in a physical sense, to see in excess, over a sea or small ocean defined as a sea (non plural)

    3, ?

  2. Don, I posed your amusing question, “Why do overlook and oversee mean the opposite?” to the word mavens and bloggers (Ms.) Pat O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman (grammarphobia.com) and today received this enlightening reply:

    Hi, M,

    Some English words are called “contronyms” because they encompass opposing meanings. Examples include “cleave” (which can mean to cling together or to divide), “sanction” (to approve or to forbid), and “oversight” (a failure to notice, or watchful care).

    We’ve written about this phenomenon on our blog before. Here are the links:

    http://www.grammarphobia.com/blog/2009/11/one-faced-words.html

    http://www.grammarphobia.com/blog/2008/03/two-faced-words-part-2.html

    http://www.grammarphobia.com/blog/2007/06/two-faced-words.html

    The story behind “overlook” and “oversee” is an interesting example of how English words develop.

    While the noun “oversight” is a contronym, the verb “oversee” has historically had only one meaning: to watch over. Originally “oversee” was meant in a rather literal way. When it appeared in Old English the early 900s (as ofersawon, in Beowulf), it meant “to look down upon; to look at from, or as if from, a higher position,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

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

    But by 1459, “overlook” it was 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” (above) and “vise,” from the Latin videre (see). Later, the OED says, it came to mean “to have the oversight of.”

    Thanks for an interesting question, and all the best,

    Pat O’Conner & Stewart Kellerman

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