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Oversee:

-verb (used with object), -saw, -seen, -see·ing.
1. to direct (work or workers); supervise; manage: He was hired to oversee the construction crews.
2. to see or observe secretly or unintentionally: We happened to oversee the burglar leaving the premises. He was overseen stealing the letters.
3. to survey or watch, as from a higher position.
4. to look over; examine; inspect.

Overlook:

–verb (used with object)
1. to fail to notice, perceive, or consider: to overlook a misspelled word.
2. to disregard or ignore indulgently, as faults or misconduct: Only a parent could overlook that kind of behavior.
3. to look over, as from a higher position: a balcony that overlooks the ballroom.
4. to afford a view over; look down or out upon: a hill overlooking the sea.

The third definitions of each are similar, but even there, oversee is used only with persons, and overlook is used only with things like balconies.

Why are they so different? Oversee makes sense to me, but can someone trace down the reason why overlook often means fail to notice?

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2  
Etymologies are often false friends; knowing what something once meant is often of little or no help in determining why it means what it means today. Take silly, for instance: it started out meaning blessed. You can trace the drift over the course of seven or eight hundred years, but you'd have to know the entire history of the usage to find a logical path from reverence to ridicule (and it is a logical path). –  bye Jul 20 '11 at 19:48

2 Answers 2

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Some basis here:

Just because you look (in the sense of pointing your eyes in the objects general direction) at something does not mean you see (in the sense of "to perceive") it.

When you look at a forest, do you see each single tree? Probably not.

Also, see has the idea built in of looking at a detail, whereas look has more of a passive action attached to it.

Back to the question:

In the case of overlook, you are looking above (ie: over) something, so you aren't looking at it. Looking above (ie: over) an object makes you miss seeing it - your eyes are not pointed at the object.

In the case of oversee, the concept is that you are standing (conceptually if not physically) over whatever you are see-ing, and making sure the object (usually a person) actually does what it is supposed to be doing.

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Insightful! I used up all my votes. Ouch. –  Daniel Jul 20 '11 at 17:47
    
Thanks for the edit :) using italics certainly looks better... –  Martin S. Stoller Jul 20 '11 at 18:06

In the past they have been used with each other's meanings, but these senses have now fallen out of use. Just part of the way language changes - they used to overlap more, but now they don't, and there may not be any particular reason why.

An example from a letter of George Washington to Alexander Spotswood (24 September 1798):

I shall depend upon your Overseer, Roger Farril, for my Mansion house concern; and Brookes Joiner, to overlook my Carpenters.

Scanning through the rest of the letters, he seems to use "overlook" for "oversee" fairly often - even, as here, in the same letter.

And for the reverse, from the play The Way of the World by William Congreve (1700):

'Twas for my ease to oversee and wilfully neglect the gross advances made him by my wife, that by permitting her to be engaged, I might continue unsuspected in my pleasures, and take you oftener to my arms in full security.

Neither of these senses are current in English any more.

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+1 Interesting, but not unexpected - obviously the more divided meanings congealed later on. –  Martin S. Stoller Jul 20 '11 at 18:27
    
My great-great-grandfather was an overlooker in a cotton mill in the mid 19th century: he watched the machines and fixed any problems, while there would have been an overseer or foreman watching him. –  Henry Jul 20 '11 at 21:18

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