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Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Oversight investigations

Furniture...and other things (including words)

Today at my "Tea and Wordlady" event, one of the attendees brought up the question of the meaning of "oversight". We both agreed that the use of "oversight" to mean "supervision" (e.g. "effective oversight of the financial reporting process") rather than "unintentional failure to notice" (e.g. "was the mistake due to oversight?") was both new and confusing.

"Well", said I, "I wonder how old that is? Surely just since the last century. Let me look it up."

You know where this is going, don't you?

Turns out the "supervision" sense is OLDER than the "negligence" sense. What's more,  both are older than I suspected: 1413 for the former and 1470 for the latter. The "supervision" sense has been in uninterrupted use over all those centuries.

Why, then, do we perceive it as "new"? Looking at some Google ngram charts of typical uses of "oversight" in this sense gives us a clue (keep scrolling after the chart):

Ngrams: regulatory oversight, effective oversight, subject to the oversight
You can see that it has become dramatically more frequent since the 1970s. If we look at another chart, for "oversight of" (which will include some in the sense of "negligence" but is predominantly in the sense "supervision"), we notice something else: before its rapid post-1970 rise, this sense was DECREASING. Those of us born between 1940 and 1970 were therefore at the bottom of the trough of "oversight" usage in this sense, so its dramatic increase in frequency since then (to the point where it is now much more frequent than the "negligence" sense) appears to us like a brand new usage. (Keep scrolling, I'm not done yet.) Ngrams: oversight of


Moral of the story: never assume that a usage is new just because you've never heard it before. It may be, in the parlance of the used-car salesman, just "new to you". 

All the same, it's odd to have one word with two apparently contradictory meanings: close attention paid to something vs. failure to do or notice something. It's surprising that both have survived for so long. One of these meanings may become obsolete; with the way things are going, it's likely to be the "failure to notice" sense. But perhaps not. If we've lived with this for over 600 years, perhaps we can continue to muddle along.
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About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.