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As native speakers of English, we have a direct, non-analytical understanding of the differences among "look", "see", and "watch", the three main verbs for expressing visual perception.  The first indicates that we have a purposive gaze at / toward / for something; the second that our sight focuses on what we were looking for; and the third adds a durative aspect of observing what we were looking for and saw.

A few days ago, I came across a mention of the term "look-see", and it brought back the memory of when I first learned the Mandarin word kànjiàn 看見 ("see") half a century ago, which struck me powerfully as having the same construction as "look-see".  Moreover, I knew enough about pidgin English to realize that "look-see" had a strong pidgin Gefühl to it.

Now, having reflected on the matter for several days, I have decided it's high time to see if there is any connection between "look-see" and kànjiàn 看見 ("see").

In the whole of Mandarin grammar, one of my favorite features is verbal complements.  A complement is a word or phrase following a verb (including stative / adjectival verbs) that provides additional information or nuance to the verb.   Verbal complements in Mandarin are of several types.

1. resultative complement

2. potential complement

3. directional complement

4. complement of degree

5. complement of state

6. quantitative complement

7. locational complement

8. time complement

(source — with examples and explanations; see also here for detailed instructions about how to write each of these complements in Hanyu Pinyin orthography)

I used to enjoy playing around with all the different types of complements.  For example, complement of degree: 

hǎo de bùdeliǎo


"exceptionally good"

N.B.:  This one is complicated by the fact that the marker / particle of the complement of degree, de 得, is repeated in the colloquial ending (bùdeliǎo 不得了) indicating extremely / amazingly / incredibly.

Kànjiàn 看見 ("see") is essentially a resultative complement construction:  you look with the result that you see, hence "see".  You can break up that resultative construction with the particle de 得 and turn the jiàn 見 part into a potential complement:

positive — kàn dé jiàn 看得見 ("can see")

negative — kàn bù jiàn 看不見 ("cannot see")

Wishing to see if anyone else had noticed the similarity between pidgin-like "look-see" and Mandarin kànjiàn 看見 ("see"), I went straight to the mother lode of English etymology, the OED, and what did I find:

Look-see, v.

Origin: A borrowing from Chinese Pidgin English. Etymon: Chinese Pidgin English look-see.

Etymology: < Chinese Pidgin English look-see < look v. + see v., apparently after a Chinese expression with a resultative construction (in which the second element represents the result of an action specified by the first), although the exact model is unclear and may be from any of several varieties of Chinese; compare e.g. (Mandarin) kànjiàn to see ( < kàn to look + jiàn to see).

colloquial. Only in the infinitive and imperative. Now somewhat rare.

 1. intransitive. To investigate, find out, examine; (also in weakened sense) to see. Now rare.

1862   National Mag. 12 157/2   I went up to ‘look see’, and found that they were working away admirably.

1863   A. A. Fisher Personal Narr. Three Years' Service in China ii. 35   To ‘look see’ is..much more than to look; perhaps what an American would call to prospect.

1898   Japan Weekly Mail 29 Dec. 688/1   A Chinese Imperial Commission was despatched to the West ‘to look-see’, and write reports.

1919   Boys' Life Aug. 13/2   I sent Billi down to look-see.

1921   Z. Grey Call of Canyon (1924) v. 107   Come—looksee, as they Indians say.

1950   P. Larkin Let. 20 May in Sel. Lett. (1992) 164   This life is a regular bastard, looksee!

2007   A. E. Abney Wings over Illinois ii. 208   Back to the airport for the tower to look-see.

 2. transitive. To inspect, examine, look at (something). Chiefly with indirect question as object: to see, find out, ascertain (how, if, etc.).

1867   Chambers's Jrnl. 9 Nov. 717/1   He would often..come to my berth, as he said, ‘to look see how master was’.

1877   in R. C. Houghton Women of Orient viii. 165   I wish that you could..have been there to ‘look see’ the entertainment, as the Chinaman says.

1898   Jrnl. Soc. Arts 24 June 683/1   Gentlemen who are employed in walking round the mills to ‘look-see’ if others are attending to their work.

1912   C. D. Mackellar Scented Isles & Coral Gardens 307   All Chinese boats have the two eyes in the bows, to ‘look-see’ where they are going.

1995   M. Collins Colour of Forgetting 36   Learn to laugh, you hear, chile. Don't even wait to look see if you find a funny side.

Look-see, n.

Origin: Either (i) a borrowing from Chinese Pidgin English. Or (ii) formed within English, by conversion. Etymons: Chinese Pidgin English look-see  ; look-see v.

Etymology: Either < Chinese Pidgin English look-see, noun ( < look see , verb: see look-see v.)

Bingo!  Look-see for yourself.


Selected readings

[Thanks to Vito Acosta]


  1. Rofo said,

    September 27, 2022 @ 10:51 am

    Have you encountered 'hear see'? I first encountered it watching Christopher Hitchens in a debate.

    'i can shake what I heard saw once'. Doesn't seem to be a misspeak. A kind of 聽見?

    At 1.27.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    September 27, 2022 @ 11:28 am

    Good one!

    You're exactly right! It's at 1:31:21.

    Cf. tīngjiàn 聽見 ("hear-see / perceive" = "hear") — 12,800,000 ghits

    A perfectly legitimate lexeme that essentially is a resultative complement construction, just like kànjiàn 看見 ("look-see / perceive" = "see") — 44,000,000 ghits.

  3. pfb said,

    September 27, 2022 @ 1:38 pm

    I've only encountered this as a noun, "I'll take a look-see," used without any hint of orientalist condescension. That it, it seems to have become naturalized.

    I'm reminded of an expression "just a skosh," my uncle used to describe or request a small amount of something. When studying Japanese many years later, I recognized this is just the Japanese "sukoshi." He isn't the kind of man who would use foreign words to mock foreigners; my guess is that this was Air Force slang he picked up in the Air Force Reserves.

  4. Jerry Packard said,

    September 27, 2022 @ 2:10 pm

    pfb – 'skosh' is indeed military slang.

  5. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    September 27, 2022 @ 4:12 pm

    (source — with examples and explanations; see also here for detailed instructions about how to write each of these complements in Hanyu Pinyin orthography)

    Neither link works though.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    September 27, 2022 @ 4:34 pm

    Both links work perfectly well for me and for everyone else I know who tried them.

  7. Jonathan Smith said,

    September 27, 2022 @ 6:32 pm

    Interesting; structurally a perfect-looking calque and with early China-connected occurrences — and yet semantically these usages (generally '[go place and] check it out, take a look') don't suggest Ch. kanjian 看见 at all but rather, say, kankan 看看…

  8. Jonathan Smith said,

    September 27, 2022 @ 6:33 pm

    also the links in question are "urldefended" work-email-style which might be in error?

  9. cameron said,

    September 27, 2022 @ 11:36 pm

    in military and military-adjacent registers of British English, the Hindi borrowing "decko", "dekko", or "dekkho" (and probably other transliterations as well) used to be somewhat prevalent

  10. Philip Taylor said,

    September 28, 2022 @ 2:42 am

    Antonio, the two links in question, stripped of their (rather odd) prefices and suffices, are as follows : <https://resources.allsetlearning.com/chinese/grammar/Complement&gt; < http://www.pinyin.info/readings/texts/verb_complement.html&gt;.

  11. Philip Taylor said,

    September 28, 2022 @ 2:44 am

    Or maybe not — let's try without any decoration whatsoever :



  12. Victor Mair said,

    September 28, 2022 @ 6:53 am


    Borrowed from Hindustani देखो / دیکھو‎ (dekho), imperative of देखना / دیکھنا‎ (dekhnā, “to see, to look”).


  13. Victor Mair said,

    September 28, 2022 @ 6:55 am

    From Nathan Hopson:

    As one of the commenters notes, skosh is military slang. It was apparently picked up first by Occupation troops, though it may (speculation) have been popularized more among forces in Japan during the Korean War.

    Merriam-Webster notes:

    Did you know?
    The word skosh comes from the Japanese word sukoshi, which is pronounced "skoh shee" and means "a tiny bit" or "a small amount." The Japanese word was shortened by U.S. servicemen stationed in Japan after World War II. Later, in the Korean War, a small soldier was often nicknamed Skosh. In civilian-speak, skosh can be used by itself as a noun or in the adverbial phrase "a skosh".

    and also that the first known usage was 1952.

  14. Terry K. said,

    September 28, 2022 @ 9:33 am

    Somthing went wrong in Philip Taylor's tagging.

    Actual URLs:


  15. Kate Bunting said,

    September 28, 2022 @ 10:54 am

    I used to use 'dekko' in my youth, though I had no particular military connections. I suppose it was soon enough after WWII for such words to be still circulating among the general population.

  16. Philip Taylor said,

    September 28, 2022 @ 11:54 am

    And I, Kate. I first encountered it when a fellow pupil at my school, with whom I was working to create some real blue-prints, said "let's take a dekko and see how they are coming along". I had to ask him what a dekko was. We were both less than eleven years of age, so the war had ended around 12 years previously.

  17. Chas Belov said,

    September 30, 2022 @ 12:54 am

    I only recall encountering it (in English) as "Let's have a look-see."

    Encountered in either the Philly area or in the Pittsburgh area. I don't think I've heard it since I left those areas unless I might have used it myself, so not in years and years.

  18. maidhc said,

    September 30, 2022 @ 2:22 am

    I've heard a theory that "dekko" may have come into English from Romani, which is of course a relative of Hindi.

    "Let's have a shufti" is definitely military slang though.

  19. Nori said,

    October 3, 2022 @ 5:24 pm

    I would like to modify your definitions of look, see, and watch based on my experience as an ESL teacher. I am aware that your definitions are standard because they are what my students tell me. However, based on them, my students are led astray in usage. For example, when you read a book, your gaze has duration, so they often say, "I watched a book" or if they go to a museum and spend time analyzing a painting, they say, " I watched the painting". Both of these are unnatural usages. Instead, I tell them that "look" simply refers to focus with "watch" as a kind of subcategory used when the object of focus has movement. (See is for other cases). The painting has no movement, so it is inappropriate to use watch. The example I ask them to remember is going to hanami (cherry-blossom-viewing party):
    "We looked at the cherry trees," but "we watched the falling cherry blossoms."

    I watched a baseball game.
    I watched children playing in the park.
    I watched YouTube.
    I watched the parade going by.
    (All objects have movement).

    I watched the baseball players.
    I watched my baby sleep in its crib.
    I watched Instagram.
    I watched the traffic jam.
    (All objects do not have movement).

    I think the only time watch-with-object's-movement fails is when watch has the nuance of protect as in "I watched the children while their mother was out."

    Also, look doesn't need to have purpose so much as focus. When we say "Look!" we are commanding a change in focus but without any nuance related to purpose, I think.

    Finally, I'd like to say that while I usually put periods inside closing parentheses and quotation marks, my Android auto-corrects this, so I've given up on it.

  20. Chas Belov said,

    October 5, 2022 @ 7:07 pm

    Hmmm, I would be okay with "I watched my baby sleep in its crib." I might even be okay with "I watched the traffic jam." if I spent some extended period of time doing so.

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