When Marmaduke Hussey was Chairman of the BBC Governors in the 1990s, he received a letter from one of his cronies, who happened also to be a former governor of the BBC, asking why ‘we’ were pronouncing the word surveillance ‘with the lls’, rather than as ‘surveyance’, given than the origin of the word was the French verb surveiller, in which the -ll was not pronounced as /l/. Inevitably, the letter ended up on my desk, and I provided the answer that surveillance and surveyance were two separate words in English, with different meanings. Indeed, the OED entry for surveyance includes the bracketed comment “Sometimes apparently confused with surveillance, n.” I sent my draft back to the Chairman’s office as that was where the enquiry to me had come from. Some weeks later, his office sent me a copy of the reply that Hussey had sent, and it included the words (approximately) “it seems there was more to this than we thought – but it made them think!” Two things struck me about this: first that the initial letter didn’t come out of the blue, but was the result of a conversation between sender and recipient, in which it was suggested that a letter might be useful, and second, that the Chairman was not exactly supporting his staff when he added the second phrase. Was the whole thing a test of our competence?
These memories have been stirred by the use this week, in my hearing only by Americans, of the word surveil in connexion with the revelations of Edward Snowden. I’m not aware of having heard it before, but the OED can take it back to 1960 as a back-formation from surveillance. The word ‘back-formation’ always seems to me to be a pejorative term, as if the way in which the new word has been formed is illegitimate in some way, and yet if we can create a new compound by adding suffixes or prefixes to an existing word, why should we not similarly create something by taking a part of the word away? Surveil clearly has a different meaning from survey, and the alternative is the rather clumsy periphrasis “to hold under surveillance”.