February 09, 2008

She was seeing at me

Yogi Berra is often quoted as saying "Sometimes you can observe a lot just by watching" (48,500 times on the web, according to Google). He's less often quoted as saying "Sometimes you can see a lot just by looking" (1,020 times on the web, according to Google).

Both versions of the epigram are based on the same two differences. In the first place, observing and seeing imply some kind of psychological uptake that watching and looking don't. Thus you can say "I looked but I didn't see any problems", or "I was watching but I didn't observe any problems"; but you can't turn it around and say (in the same sense) "I saw but I didn't look at any problems", or "I observed but I didn't watch any problems". And in the second place, watching and looking imply some kind of choice or intent in allocating attention that seeing and observing don't. Thus it's normal to say "don't watch" or "don't look", but not "don't observe" or "don't see".

So it doesn't work to turn Yogi's quotes around: "Sometimes you can watch a lot just by observing", or "Sometimes you can look at a lot just by seeing". In the usual order, we can understand his remarks to mean "if you pay attention, you might learn something" -- if we turn them around, that interpretation is lost.

Lynn Johnston's wonderful comic strip For Better or For Worse, on 2/5/2008 and 2/6/2008, reminds us that kids can misunderstand such things in creative ways.

Robin's usage "... seeing at me" creatively combines the purposefulness of "look at" with the (distractingly intrusive) uptake of "see". At least, I think that's what he has in mind.

[Update -- John Cowan reminds us that Sherlock Holmes pairs "see" and "observe" (in A Scandal in Bohemia):

I could not help laughing at the ease with which he explained his process of deduction. "When I hear you give your reasons," I remarked, "the thing always appears to me to be so ridiculously simple that I could easily do it myself, though at each successive instance of your reasoning I am baffled until you explain your process. And yet I believe that my eyes are as good as yours."

"Quite so," he answered, lighting a cigarette, and throwing himself down into an armchair. "You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear. For example, you have frequently seen the steps which lead up from the hall to this room."


"How often?"

"Well, some hundreds of times."

"Then how many are there?"

"How many? I don't know."

"Quite so! You have not observed. And yet you have seen. That is just my point. Now, I know that there are seventeen steps, because I have both seen and observed. [...]"


Posted by Mark Liberman at February 9, 2008 10:24 AM