The Grammarphobia Blog

To surveil with love

Q: If an agency performs surveillance upon a person, is the person surveilled or surveyed? I would think the latter. Please advise.

A: When Big Brother is watching you, you’re being surveilled, though we’d prefer saying you’re under surveillance, a much more popular usage. In fact, our spell-checker doesn’t recognize “surveil” or “surveilled.”

Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, defines “surveil” as “to subject to surveillance.” It gives “surveilled” as the past tense and the past participle.

The dictionary says the verb is a “back-formation from surveillance.” (A back-formation is a new word formed by dropping parts of an older one.)

The verb “survey” has several similar meanings—to look over, examine, evaluate, supervise, and so on—but none of them are quite the same as “surveil” or the longer verb phrase “subject to surveillance.”

English borrowed the noun “surveillance” from French in the late 18th or early 19th century. It’s derived from the Latin vigilare (to watch).

The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary, from 1799, appears to be using the French word in an English sentence.

The next example is from an 1802 letter by John Gustavus Lemaistre about a visit to a tapestry factory in Paris:

“The workmen are not locked up within the walls of the manufactory … but they are kept under the constant ‘surveillance of the police.’ ” (We’ve expanded the OED citation.)

The word “surveil” didn’t show up until much later. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) dates it to 1914, but M-W doesn’t mention a source.

The earliest example in the OED is from a 1960 court opinion in the Federal Supplement, which publishes case law: “The plaintiff also stresses that the store as a whole, and the customer exits especially, were closely surveilled.”

Is “surveil” etymologically related to “survey”? Not really, though both are derived from Latin words that have something to do with vision.

The verb “survey,” which entered English in the 15th century via the Anglo-Norman surveier, is derived from videre, the Latin verb for see, while “surveil” (as we’ve said above) comes from vigilare, the Latin verb for watch.

And these two verbs have different reconstructed Indo-European roots: “survey” is ultimately derived from weid (to see) while “surveil” is derived from weg (to awake).

Finally, all this talk about surveillance reminds us of “To Surveil With Love,” an episode on The Simpsons a couple of years ago.

In the episode, Homer accidentally leaves his gym bag at train station after nuclear waste is hidden in it. Fearing terrorism, officials suspend civil liberties and install surveillance cameras all over town.

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