Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The meaning of the word

You know what has been bugging me lately? The word "oversight."

It means both a mistake--accidentally missing something--and the function of overseeing a process or entity to make sure that everything is as it should be. That is, its two meanings are not quite directly contradictory, but they're close.

Both meanings are commonly used in political vocabulary. I guess to me, the latter definition is the primary one (I'm not saying this is a general fact, it's just my personal use), so whenever a political figure refers to a negative event as an "oversight", as in an innocent mistake ("I'm confident it was an oversight and we can move on"), I find it jarring and somewhat eerie.

I guess the anthropological side of me is wondering about the dual function. I wonder if the closeness of the words reflects, or could be used to stand for, the general acceptance that government is an imperfect set of institutions and processes and that it will routinely fail in its primary duties: oversights as failures of oversight.

I don't mean to imply that it's consciously used that way at all or that there's really any linguistic-historical there there. I just find it interesting in light of some thoughts I was toying with for my Anthropology of Policymaking class last quarter.

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