Saturday, December 6, 2014

Watching on as an expression takes root

Here are a few quotes from the British media:
  • But detectives watched on as he landed and hid on the plane for two hours, before flying off to escape justice.
    The Guardian, Feb 2008
  • Fulham captain Brede Hangeland cannot wait to return to action on Monday after the unusual experience of watching on from the sidelines.
    The Independent, Dec 2012
  • But watching on from the performance boat it's immediately apparent that our boys are struggling into the breeze
    The Daily Telegraph, Sep 2013
  • Chris Hughton, the Norwich manager, watched on as Gary Hooper scored and Fraser Forster saved a penalty in win
    The Times, Jan 2013
  • The 45-year-old had been watching on from the coastline.
    The Daily Mail, Sep 2014
  • Boris Becker watched on as defending champ Novak Djokovic made light work of Slovakian Lukas Lacko
    The Sun, Jan 2014
  • With Olympic champion and world record holder Usain Bolt watching on from the stands
    BBC, Aug 2014
What's this with watching on? Don't we usually say looking on? A contributor at the language forum Pain in the English wondered about the apparently increasing popularity of this expression amongst sports people (hat tip to 'Hairy Scot'). Not having noticed it before, I decided to investigate.

The first ten results in a Google search for watching on from were from:
  • Warrington Wolves (rugby league)
  • Twitter (American football)
  • Twitter (football)
  • A Canadian website (World Cup football)
  • West Ham World (football)
  • Total Barca (football - Suárez: “You feel helpless watching on from afar”)
  • Daily Mail (football)
  • Facebook (football - the Suarez quote again)
So, it certainly seems to be mainly (though not only) connected with sport, and it looks as though it might be a principally British phenomenon. Site searches of various media sites confirmed this:
watching on fromlooking on fromearliestwatched on asearliest
British media
The BBC40722006532003
The Guardian10482003312008
The Independent7542009401998
The Telegraph40822003772001
The Times182013152005
The Daily Mail337520101542006
The Sun312008112007
The Express1872007592007
The Mirror29202010842006
Four Four Two2852011452013
US media
The New York Times073
The Washington Post066
The LA Times011
Fox News028
Social media
Comparisons with looked on as are pretty meaningless since it is often used with the meaning of considered as.
There are a few examples from the first decade of the century, but the vast bulk of examples come from 2011-2014, so I think we can say that this is pretty recent phenomenon. Honour for the earliest example of watching on from goes to an article from the Press Association about a rugby international between New Zealand's All Blacks and Canada at the 2003 Rugby World Cup, in Melbourne, printed in the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian:
Watching on from the sidelines was Ben Blair, whose World Cup future was thrown into doubt just hours before the kick-off

Daily Telegraph 2003, The Guardian, 2003

But watched on as seems to both predate watching on from, and be used more often.
Chalmers ended with a closing round two-under-par 70 for a 72-hole total of even-par 288 then watched on as his two nearest rivals both missed birdie attempts which would have forced a play-off.

The Independent,1998

Finding suitable collocations

The next step was to see to what extent this usage has occurred in books, how old it is, and whether it has been mainly used in connection with sport, by searching Google Books. But there was a small problem.
In the vast majority of cases, on in watching on and watched on is a preposition, and is followed by a determiner such as the, my, this etc. To wade through all these looking for watch on in the meaning of look on from the sidelines would be like looking for a needle in a haystack, so we need some additional filter. Luckily there are a few conjunctions and prepositions that often follow it in the meaning we are interested in.

Four Four Two

Four Four Two is a British football magazine and website, and seems to be where the expression watching on is most at home, so I had a look to see how they were using it.
There were 85 examples of watched on, 53 of watching on, and 49 of watch on,and a handful for watches on. As far as I could see, most of these used on adverbially. The more usual looking on from hardly gets a look-in,
I looked at the first ten genuine entries for each form. For watched on, there was one participle clause and nine finite verbs. The most popular word to follow on was as, with 8 instances, then one instance of with and one of a following adverb.
For watching on, we have eight participle clauses, and two finite verbs. In eight cases watching on is followed by from, in one by as, and one by after.
In six cases, watch on is followed by as, in three by from, and one by an adverb.


So I first decided that my line of enquiry should concentrate on watch / watching / watched on followed by from and as. But there was another way to do it, which was to look at how look on is used when not followed by a determiner. This is what I found at the collocation finder, Netspeak, which confirmed as and from, but meant that I should also consider in and with (the comma and fullstop are impossible to search for at Google Books:
look onlooking onlooked on


Finally, I had a look at look on at Ngram, and the top non-determiner collocations were: look on and; looked on as, with, in; looking on with, and, in. This gave me five variations to look at - as, from, in, with, and

Looking on and watching on at Ngram

The top non-determiner collocations at Ngram for looked on and looking on are as and with respectively, so I compared them with their watching on equivalents, which barely figure:
But when we look at watched on and watching on (with suitable collocates) in more recent years, we can see that something is definitely happening:
There are no instances, unfortunately, of watching on from in the Ngram corpus. It must be remembered, however, that Ngram only covers a small percentage of the books digitised by Google. So for real results we need to look at Google Books, where we can also make very time-specific searches (although we have to be aware that quite a few of the books at Google Books have been misdated).

Looking on goes well back before 1800

But first let's have a look at look on with the meaning of watching something from the sidelines. How old is it? At Google Books, there are four examples of looked on as and one of looking on as before 1800, but these all have the meaning of 'considered as'.
Other variations are more promising. The earliest example I can find with our meaning is one of looking on in, from 1601
"But though I used the best expedition I could yet Tyrone did attempt us in our drawing of[f], with no great gaming of either side though so unwilling he was any more to meddle that he hynge [?] looking on in the Fews."

Calendar of the State Papers relating to Ireland, 1601

There are five verifible examples of looking on (and), the earliest from 1677
... which I cou'd not be weary of looking on, and observing its motion that lasted near four Hours

Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, London 1677

There is an early example of looking on from (but only one before 1800):
The King of France looking on from the Hill of Saronne

The Earl of Castlemaine's Memoirs of the Irish Wars, 1681

We do rather better with looking on with - two indisputable examples, both with the meaning we are after (and two misdated), the earliest, although listed as 1662, appears to be from 1708
After sunset, at the top of the mast, suddenly appeared a little fire, about the size of a big candle's flame, which made about the same noise as an ascending rocket; it lasted for about one good quarter of an hour, and we were looking on with great attention

From a narrative by Baron Christoph von Graffenried, 1708, in The Colonial Records of North Carolina, Vol 1, 1884

The next is from 1746
If the balance of power were in 'any danger, the empire would not stand neutral, nor would the princes thereof stand looking on with such unconcern.

The Scots Magazine, 1746

and therefore he addresses himself immediately to the crowd, and reproaches the delay of those, who stupidly looked on

The Universal Magazine, London, 1748

All three looked on with curiosity, anticipating much diversion

The Tatler,or Lubrications of Isaac Bickerstaffe, Esq, Sir Richarsd Steele, Joseph Addison, London, 1764

So I think we can say that this meaning of look on was well established before 1800.

Watching on at Google Books

There are no hits at GoogleBooks for any of the variations between 1500 and 1799. For the rest, I've ignored watch on, as there are too many referring to watches, whether of the wrist type or the nautical type. I've also ignored things like watching on and on / on and off. These include simple watching / watched on followed by a full stop or comma when the next clause or sentence starts with the target preposition / conjunction
19th century - watched on31211331
19th century - watching on21432
1900-1949 - watched on25453
1900-1949 - watching on00122
1950-1974 - watched on62671
1950-1974 - watching on40324
1975-1999 - watched on27132959
1975-1999 - watching on1621275
2000-2014 - watched on105777
2000-2014 - watching on87184

Nineteenth Century

The earliest I could find was from 1820.
Who, when surrounded was with spies,
All watching on with Argus eyes

The Republican, London, 1820

Nella too was glad to be spared all speech, and the cousins watched on in silence

Sir Michael Paulet, Ellen Pickering, London, 1845

Still I watched on, with unabated vigilance, deep into the night.

Cat and Dog, London, 1854

Till, worried out with watching on in vain, We fall to sleep,

The Living Age, Boston, 1867

There we stood, in mute affliction
Watching on from day to day

The Deserted Chamber, from Alice and other poems, Francis Reginald Slatham, London, 1868

She sat watching on as they gave up the sport

The Englishman's Magazine of Literature, Religion, Science and Art, London 1865

Wait ! fear not ! she cries, Watch on with trusting eyes

The Cornhill Magazine, London, 1867

It's as weel I didna lippen to ye to tak' my place," she mentally observed, as she watched on from hour to hour

Auld Fernies's Son, Mary Charlotte J leith, 1881

Juno watched on, and when at last nothing could be seen, she waved her handkerchief

Masterman Ready, Frederick Marryat, London, 1885

Would the old ones last until the new ones came? brooded the fascinated Guy, watching on as one possessed

The English Illustrated Magazine, 1893

We watched on as the blaze drove eastwards

Pearson's Magazine, London, 1896

Our interest in each other will not cease at commencement day, but we will watch on as the years go by.

The Michigan Alumnus, 1899

The expression, then, was definitely used in the nineteenth century, but examples are few and far between, especially when compared with look on. And at this time there is certainly no specific connection with sport.

Twentieth century - first half

I found just over twenty examples, none of them to do with sport.
... he generally sets the younger ones to do the robbery while he is watching on and giving warning of the police

Parliamentary Papers, London, 1908

The Faun watched on with wide eyes, for his dayeyes are narrow and sleepy, but his night-eyes are wide and keen, the seers of wild shy secrets, the beholders of celestial descents.

Gods and Wood Things, Leslie Holdsworth Allen,London 1913

I have heard of European officers having actually asked their servants to beat respectable Indians — themselves watching on !

India Arisen, Thanwardas Lilaram Vaswani, 1922

Mr. Hendrix, still preserving his finest courtroom manner of Reason and Superiority, watched on in silence and fell to wondering what he had ever seen in this redheaded, almost illiterate creature with her muscular legs and childish face to have ever considered her charming or desirable

Actor's Blood, Ben Hecht, 1936

Twentieth century - third quarter

Around 27 examples, only two connected with sport, both American (I think):
R. L. M. Kirkwood watched on from the centre of the ring while hundreds of people watched with excitement this Calf Scramble.

The Farmer,1950

A crowd of 49,936 watched on in 105° heat as the Nationals scored their 19th All-Star win against 17 losses and one tie.

Brittanica Book of the Year 1967

... and the Indian police present watched on with folded arms, without intervening at all.

Notes, Memoranda and Letters, Indian Ministry of External Affairs, 1959

Twentieth century - fourth quarter

With around 125 examples of watched on and watching on with the meaning we are interested in between 1975 and 2000, we can see a distinct increase in the last quarter of the twentieth century. However, hardly any are to do with sport, a lot appear to be American, and a lot are from fiction. Here are the only sports related examples I could find:
... the drivers, the flag marshals waving two yellow flags to warn the other competitors that the track was completely blocked, and the stunned, shuffling silence of the crowd, watching on in horror.

Race for revenge, Lynsey Stevens, 1982

Watching on as McKechnie made his point at national level for the first time, his Southland Boys' High School coach Clive Williams recalled how he had been drawn to his ability seven years earlier.

McKechnie, Double All Black: An Autobiography, New Zealand, 1983

Itagaki was an active supporter of sumo wrestling, but the white-haired old man who regularly watched on from the gallery at the Kokugikan arena appeared to be a living fossil from the distant past.

Five political leaders of modern Japan, various authors, 1986

Jealousy will manifest itself like parents in a fist fight at a little league game with the little leaguers watching on in disbelief.

The American Racing Pigeon News, 1987

And now, with Savage as the WWF's deluded monarch putting his entire existence, his reason for being on the line, she had returned, watching on from the sidelines

Article dated 1991, from The Complete WWF Video Guide Volume II (2012), Christine Simonotti

The big game for the Vega Longhorns. The crowd watched on in the balmy Texas panhandle

Hey Cowboy, Wanna Get Lucky?, Baxter Black, 1995

Twenty-first century

Up until 2000, I've only been able to find seven examples connected with sport. The first fourteen years of this century yield nine: four about American sports, one about golf, two about cricket, and two about football. Hardly the surge, nor the bias towards football or Britain, that might have been expected from its use in the media.
With the Wildcats taking a one-nil lead in the three-game series, Heal will be watching on with close interest as he considers rejoining the league where he launched his international career.

The Bulletin, 2000

And that's exactly what happened, with Boone watching on from the sideline. The Titans beat the Steelers 34-31 in overtime the next night in one of the wildest games ever played at the Coliseum.

Tales from the Titans Sideline, Jim Wyat, US 2004

... was Nick Faldo and Freddie Couples, Davis Love and Gary Player, all of them tinkering away as a hushed crowd of a couple of hundred fans watched on from the grandstand.

John Daly: The Biography, Gavin Newsham, 2005

Watching on with not so benevolent interest is Vaughn (Wayne Brady), a former NBA agent who makes serious money handling the big money betting that surrounds the matches.

The Holywood Reporter, 2006

The greatest crowd of the week watched on, and they were heart and soul with the blue-eyed, golden-haired Englishman, who performed prodigies of court covering, but lacked the knowledge of tennis tactics to press home victory.

All-Round Genius: The Unknown Story of Britain's Greatest Sportsman, Mick Collins, 2007

The setting could not have been more perfect: a hill-country town he loves, with a large family he adores, all watching on from the main pavilion.

Brick, 2007

There is a gulf separating the two 'traditions', between the political and cultural drivers that animate their fans watching on from the sidelines, and the reality of the sporting action on the field.

El Clasico: Barcelona V Real Madrid: Football's Greatest Rivalry, Richard Fitzpatrick, London 2012

The plodding nature of the football and the thousand or so passive looking souls watching on from the bleachers hint that the real nature of this rivalry might be somewhat less intense.

Of Garrisons and Goalscorers, Hugo Saye, Bloomington,Indiana, 2012

October (2006) started with a memorial service for Peter Osgood that was held on the Stamford Bridge pitch, with those attending watching on from the Lower Shed.

Making History, Not Reliving It: A decade of Roman's rule at Chelsea, Mark Worrall, Kelvin Barker, David Johnstone, UK 2013


The expression look on, as in 'watch from a distance', goes back to least to 1601. A variation, watch on, has been used very occasionally in books since around 1820, but with nothing like the frequency of look on.
In the vast majority of cases, this use of watch on in books is unconnected with sport: I've only been able to find sixteen sports-related examples at Google Books, with the earliest from 1950. Of these only two are to do with football, the area where it seems to be primarily used in the media, and both of those are recent, 2012 and 2013.
It appears to have started being used in connection with sport, and especially football, in the British media in the early years of this century. The earliest I've been able to find are from 1998 (watched on as) and 2003 (watched on from), but it didn't really take off till about 2012, most examples being from 2013-2014. It looks just too new to have really made it into books yet.

Appendix 2 - Four Four Two

watched on

  • and he watched on as Johnson finally broke Stoke's resistance
  • And he then watched on with joy as his header just cleared Caner Erkin
  • Guardiola watched on as ...
  • as banned coach Diego Simeone watched on helplessly
  • he also watched on as Ryan Taylor ...
  • Kluivert ... has watched on with interest
  • Having watched on as France beat Portugal and Armenia in recent weeks
  • Van Gaal watched on as his side beat Valencia 2-1
  • Hodgson watched on ... as England toiled to a 1-0 friendly win over Norway
  • The Barcelona boss watched on as the Argentine superstar netted a hat-trick

watching on

  • Watching on from afar will be Tosh Farrell
  • with Roy Hodgson watching on from the White Hart Lane stands
  • watching on as a dominant Juventus won three consecutive titles
  • Russell Slade, who was watching on from the stands at Bloomfield Road
  • with England manager Roy Hodgson watching on from the stands
  • The controversial Italy international ..., watching on from the stands
  • Munsterman will be watching on from the Netherlands on Saturday
  • Jones will join Emanuele Giaccherini in watching on from the sidelines
  • With new signing Mario Balotelli watching on after completing his move from Milan
  • Watching on from the comfort of his sofa ... was Georges Leekens

watch on

  • Robins will not officially take over until Monday, so must watch on from the stands
  • for years they've had to watch on forlornly as quality player after quality player was sold
  • Manuel Pellegrini could only watch on from the stands
  • with Given left to watch on from the bench
  • Fraser Forster could only watch on as the ball curled over
  • and had to watch on as Klinsmann's men qualified
  • and had to watch on as his team-mates were routed 7-1
  • and had to watch on as his team sealed a 2-1 victory
  • the Hull manager could only watch on as Harry Kane equalised

Afterthought - crash-blossom, or just a participle with an ambiguous subject?

I started this post with a quote from the Guardian:
But detectives watched on as he landed and hid on the plane for two hours, before flying off to escape justice.
I assume it wasn't the detectives who flew off to escape justice. (Google Search - "crash blossom")

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