Ologies And Isms Word Beginnings And Endings In Essays

Early dictionary definitions of 'oversee', 'overlook', and 'oversight'

The dual (and dueling) meanings of oversee go back quite a long way in English usage, as do the corresponding pair of meanings of overlook (although overlook also had a third meaning along the lines of ""to view contemptuously"). Here are the relevant entries in John Kersey, Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum: Or, A General English Dictionary (1708):

To Over-look, to have an Eye upon, to wink at ; to take no notice of ; to look upon with disdain.


To Oversee, to have the Management of ; to over-look, or let slip.

And here are the corresponding entries in Nathan Bailey, An Universal Etymological English Dictionary, second edition (1724):

To OVERLOOK, to look over, to have an Eye upon, or look after ; to take no notice of, to wink at ; to look upon with Contempt.


To OVERSEE, to have the Management of ; to overlook or let pass.

Bailey's dictionary seems to owe a considerable unacknowledged debt to Kersey's. Neither of these dictionaries has an entry for the noun oversight.

Slightly earlier than Kersey's solo dictionary is his revision of Edward Philips's New World of Words, which has a rather more garbled entry for "To Over-look" but virtually the same one for "To Over-see." From Phillips & Kersey, The New World of Words: Or, Universal English Dictionary, sixth edition (1706):

To Over-look, to have an Eye upon, to survey , to connive or wink at ; to pass by, or take no notice of ; to over-top, to look upon with disdain or scorn.


To Over-see, to have the Conduct or Management of ; to over-look, or let slip.

The noun oversight finally appears in yet another Kersey dictionary, A New English Dictionary: Or, a Compleat Collection of the Most Proper and Significant Words, second edition (1713)—and the two inconsistent meanings are in place:

An Oversight, a looking after a Business , a Mistake.

So, to sum up, oversight has had the meanings "business supervision or management" and "a mistake" for more than 300 years. The associated verb oversee and its synonym overlook have likewise carried rather incompatible dual meanings for more than three centuries as well.

The trouble with 'over'-

The culprit here is the prefix over-, which has a number of meanings that run in several directions. Here is the discussion of over- in Michael Quinion, Ologies and Isms: A Dictionary of Word Beginnings and Endings (2002):

over-Excessively; extra; outer; above. {English over.}

The form has several of the senses of the preposition over and appears in a very large number of compounds that can be nouns, adjectives, verbs, or adverbs. Over- can be freely prefixed to other words for a momentary need. Its meanings are rather variable and diffuse, and difficult to categorize.

Having said that, there are some groupings that are commonly encountered. The one most often found refers to something beyond what is usual or desirable, even excessively so (overambitious, overcareful, overexert, overindulgence, overfull, overprecise, overprepared, overweight), which leads into a rarer sense of 'utterly' or 'completely' (overawed, overjoyed). In others, the form has a spatial sense of something above or higher up, which broadens into a figurative sense of something that is superior (overhang, overbridge, overarching, overlook, overtone, overlord, overrule). A fourth set of words in which the meaning is of something upper, outer, or extra (overcoat, overshoes, overtime). Another sense is of motion forward and down, and hence of inversion (overturning, overbalance, overthrow, overboard). The form can also suggest covering a surface (overpaint, overgrow).

Evidently, oversee, overlook, and oversight long ago acquired meanings that invoke both the "excessively" sense of over- and the "above" sense of over-. The result is three words whose own meanings seem to be fundamentally hostile to one other.

answered Sep 15 '17 at 0:38

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Ologies & -Isms

Ologies & Isms is a guide to every academic study, discipline, and theory you might ever need to know.

Ology is a suffix derived from the Greek word that means knowledge. It refers to the "study of". From biology (the study of physical life) to melissopalynology (the study of honey) to scelerology (the study of the outer coat of the eye ball), there are more ologies in the English language than you ever thought possible.

Isms refer to doctrines, conditions or characteristics. Relativism, for example, is the idea that everything is relative, while socialism, communism, and capitalism all refer to different theories of government.

The Ologies & Isms dictionary also contains definitions of words ending in graphy (a suffix relating to a field of study), -metry (the science of measuring), - philia (a suffix used in science to refer to attraction), and -mancy (a suffix related to the study of religion).

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