Oversight, overtopped and over here

An Irishman’s Diary about linguistic confusion

‘Barbara Hearne has e-mailed to complain about a term she heard used on the weather forecast recently, ie: “Overtopping”. Specifically, she says, the speaker warned of possible “seafront overtopping”. Adds Barbara, “I just had to write it down, it was so ridiculous”.’ Photograph: Getty Images

‘Barbara Hearne has e-mailed to complain about a term she heard used on the weather forecast recently, ie: “Overtopping”. Specifically, she says, the speaker warned of possible “seafront overtopping”. Adds Barbara, “I just had to write it down, it was so ridiculous”.’ Photograph: Getty Images

Thu, Oct 31, 2013, 16:00

Still on the subject of linguistic confusion, concerned reader Mary Gallagher poses a very good question about the word “oversight”, namely: “If it means something you forgot, as it did when you and I went to school, how can it also mean ‘supervision’?”

And well she might ask, because not only is this an egregious example of a noun double-jobbing, it also suggests a blatant conflict of interests. In fact, confusion between the two meanings of oversight may have contributed to the mess Ireland is in today.

During the now-discredited era of light regulation, it seems, the word’s supposedly-competing definitions must have been working in the same office, if not sharing a desk. Only this would explain why the people who were charged with overseeing the activities of banks were also overlooking their reckless behaviour, with ruinous results.

But as far as I know, both meanings of the word have been around a long time, and are equally valid. Abolishing one or other now is not a realistic option. So all we can do henceforth, I suggest, is be more careful in keeping them apart.

Perhaps, following the precedent of the banking disaster in which they were complicit, we should break them into a “good” oversight, which would contain all the well-performing supervisors; and a “bad” oversight, which would manage the loss-makers. If possible, we could flog the latter category off later, at a heavy discount.

Although it’s a prize specimen of the genre, “oversight” is not by any means unique in English as a word that means two opposite things. That innocuous little noun “trip”, for example, can mean both a “journey” and “the act of falling over”. Similarly, the verb to “dust” can mean taking stuff off something (eg furniture) or putting it on (eg crops).

And then there’s “refrain”, which in its noun version may mean the chorus of a song, and in that sense can be used by a choirmaster as a one-word encouragement to sing. But if the choirmaster notices that his singers are tone-deaf, he might also say “refrain!”, this time as a verb and a demand for silence.

Yet another example – a favourite of business jargon – is “stake-holder”. Management consultants are always talking about stake-holders, and that’s no surprise, since the thing you need to do with stake-holders, invariably, is consult them, which is what consultants get paid for.

But “stake-holder” is almost always used to mean somebody with a direct interest. Whereas it originally referred – and still can – to the third party who holds the stake in a bet between others, and who is therefore, by definition, disinterested.

Anyway, while we’re on the subject of jargon, another reader, Barbara Hearne, has e-mailed to complain about a term she heard used on the weather forecast recently, ie: “Overtopping”. Specifically, she says, the speaker warned of possible “seafront overtopping”. And, adds Barbara, “I just had to write it down, it was so ridiculous.”

Well, maybe it is ridiculous. And certainly, it does sound a bit like one of those neologisms that consultants invent, eg: “We overtopped our targets for the third quarter”. But in meteorological circles, at least, overtopping is not new. Nor, as you might think, is it an Americanism. On the contrary, during a search in this newspaper’s archive, I found it in a story about how the waves “overtopped” the seafront in Bray during a storm once. That was from 1873. And the word may also be found in Victorian literature, as in the following extract.

“The wind fell away entirely during the evening, and shortly before 10 o’clock the stillness of the air became oppressive. Then, without warning, the tempest broke with a rapidity that seemed incredible. The waves rose in growing fury, each overtopping its fellow, until the lately glossy sea was like a roaring and devouring monster . . .”

Congratulations if you recognised that from a book called Dracula (1897), by Bram Stoker. In a classic device of Gothic literature, the passage describes unnaturally violent weather on the day the count arrives by ship to the seaside town of Whitby.

While we’re discussing Dracula, I might as well mention the Bram Stoker Festival, which begins today, in the seaside town of Dublin. Happily, Met Éireann is not forecasting any Gothic-style weather. So it follows, I hope, that any vampires attending will be of the fancy-dress variety. But rest assured, if a real-life Dracula turns up, stake-holders will be consulted.

fmcnally@irishtimes.com

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