surveillance again


Matthew Phillips has commented that his step-uncle complained about the change in pronunciation of this word in about 1990, blaming the BBC for the change. I thought it might be useful to look at the pronunciations given in a range of dictionaries over the years.

The OED’s 1st edition (this fascicle published in March 1918) gives two English pronunciations: /sɜːˈveɪlÉ™ns/ and /sɜːˈveɪljÉ™ns/, and also the French pronunciation /syrvÉ›jÉ‘Ëœs/. The earliest quotation of the word’s use in English is from 1799, in italics, indicating its status as a perceived foreign word. Chambers’s Twentieth Century Dictionary, 1901, Routledge’s Pronouncing Dictionary, 1909, and my copy of the Nuttall edition of Walker’s Pronouncing Dictionary, which is undated, but must be from the early 20th century, all give the single pronunciation /sɜːˈveɪljÉ™ns/. These all pre-date the OED fascicle.

The earliest dictionary in my possession that gives /sɜːˈveɪəns/ is The New Universal Dictionary, edited by H T D Meredith, and published by Associated Newspapers. This is undated, but a feature in the appendix is a list of significant dates in British history, of which the last is the accession of Edward VIII, which closely dates the book to 1936, as his reign began in January that year, and ended in December.

The various current pronunciation dictionaries: Longman (LPD), Cambridge (formerly the Everyman) (EPD) and Oxford (ODP), all give /sɜːˈveɪləns/, LPD adds /sɜːˈveɪəns/, and EPD has /sɜːrˈveɪljəns/ as a US pronunciation.

As is so often the case, blaming the BBC for a change in linguistic usage is unwarranted.


  1. JW Lewis says this on his website:
    “surveillance is a slightly problematic case but what is certain is that one has fairly often he’rd speakers who give this word not its usual pronunciation /səˋveɪlÉ™ns/ but one that suggests that they are either taking it to be spelt surveyance or that they think of it as having a pronunciation without l-sound such as it receives in its language of origin, French. LPD3 doesnt include this version for British usage.”

  2. My Walker, that’s dated 1849, hasnt got the word at·all.
    The remarkable Universal Dictionary of 1932 by the indpendent-minded great scholar H. C. Wyld had (not with these symbols) /sÉœ`veɪljÉ™ns/. One notes that OED’s first quote which doesnt represent the word as extraneous, ie has no italics or quotation marks, is of 1815. In the US the Webster Third New International Dictionary of 1962 gave \sÉ™(r)ˈvālÉ™n(t)s also -lyÉ™n-\ with which the Random House 1971 exactly agreed.

    PS I shoudve added that the first edition in 1917of the Jones EPD had “səːˈveilÉ™ns [-ljÉ™ns]”

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