surveillance ~ surveyance


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”.


  1. Wikipedia claims that French /ÊŽ/ became /j/ in the 18th century, while the word “surveillance” (in French as well as English) seems to date from the French Revolution (which occurred in the late 18th century). So it’s not impossible that French “surveillance” was still pronounced with /ÊŽ/, at least by some, when the word was first borrowed into English.

  2. I was startled to hear the word surveil / sÉ™`veɪl/ which must surely be, as you say, and despite what dw seems to be suggesting, simply a back-formation from surveillance — as OED notes. It’s also, as you suggest, to be welcomed. I personally dont perceive back-formation as necess·rily pejorative tho the process has prob·bly got a bit of a bad name from being used extravagantly to create slangy items. The dw remark is no dou·t quite true about the French development. It prompts me to wonder how far back the same thing began in Spanish. Cert·ny the dictionaries seem t’ve been reluctant to recognise it as having happened in Castilian.

  3. I remember my step-uncle complaining about what he described as the modern pronunciation of surveillance, with /l/, in about 1990. He was born in the 1920s I think. He preferred a pronunciation which sounded like surveyance, as he thought it was important to show the word’s French origin. He had been brought up in Wales, spoke Welsh and French, and had been a district commissioner in Tanganyika where he learned Swahili, so I rather thought he knew what he was talking about when it came to languages. He did not indicate when he thought the pronunciation had started changing, but he blamed BBC journalists. Probably they were the only people he heard using the word.

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