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Mind your language

Watch out for ‘watch on’

29 June 2019

9:00 AM

29 June 2019

9:00 AM

In Casablanca, Mr and Mrs Leuchtag resolve to speak English to each other in preparation for emigration to America. Mr Leuchtag asks: ‘Liebchen — sweetness heart, what watch?’ Mrs Leuchtag: ‘Ten watch.’ Mr Leuchtag: ‘Such much?’ The head waiter, Carl (played by S.Z. Sakall) comments: ‘Hmm. You will get along beautiful in America.’

A development in the use of watch, as a verb, has emerged recently. ‘Harry Kane was forced to watch on as Spurs scraped through,’ reported the Sun, and the Guardian wrote of Amish women playing volleyball ‘as their husbands watch on and cheer’. To me, it should either be look on or simply watch.


I can’t find that the OED has caught up with watch on, although it does in passing record the verb in a quotation from 2007 intended to illustrate the meaning of Jack Russell: ‘His Jack Russell and border terrier, Pig and Otis, watch on lazily.’ In the early days of television, viewers were said to watch in as in-lookers. No longer. And it was always possible to keep watch on someone. Originally watch had the meaning of ‘remain awake’ — indeed its form is related to wake, and further back to the Latin vigil. (It is all wonderfully complicated, because there were two verbs in Old English that coalesced in the high Middle Ages to give us wake.)

The Authorised Version of the Bible never uses the strong form of wake in the past tense (woke) or the past participle woken, preferring waked and wakened‚ and nor does Shakespeare. Woke and woken were revived after his time, on the analogy of broke, broken and spoke, spoken.

Just now, woke, from America, has become fashionable for the 1960s Marxist concept of being conscientised, a term translated from Portuguese and Spanish tracts on liberation theology. Woke has taken on the status that being saved had for 18th-century American Calvinists.

As for the watch that we once wore, before we took to mobile phones, it was familiar by Shakespeare’s time. Sebastian, making fun of Gonzalo in The Tempest, says: ‘Look he’s winding up the watch of his wit. By and by it will strike.’ The Germans use Uhr for ‘hour’ or ‘o’clock’ and for ‘watch’, hence the Leuchtags’ confusion.


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