• surveillance •
sêr-vay-lêns • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun, mass
Meaning: 1. The act of observing or watching. 2. Secretive observation of a person or group, especially one suspected of wrong-doing.
Notes: Surveillance offers ample opportunity for misspelling. First of all the initial sur is pronounced exactly the same as ser in service and the word sir. The next syllable, veil is pronounced the same as vale and has a double L. So be careful. This noun is based on an adjective, surveillant "watchful, exercising surveillance", as a surveillant prison guard.
In Play: Surveillance is not only justified by suspected wrong-doing, but also for protection: "Natalie Cladd was allowed to go out only under the surveillance of her parents or nanny." And wrong-doing casts a much broader semantic net than criminal activity: "Surveillance cameras had caught her kissing Chris Cross in front of the Bijou Theater on numerous occasions."
Word History: Today's Good Word is based on another French borrowing, the verb survey. This verb originally meant simply "to observe", as to survey the horizon for ships. However, the usage of this verb narrowed to "measure a parcel of land", while its noun tightened its sense to that above. So, we needed a verb meaning to "observe secretly a person or group suspected of wrong-doing", and presto! to surveil popped up. This new verb was 'back-formed' from surveillance, that is, the suffix -ance was removed to reveal what appeared to be a verb beneath it. Today's word comes from the French verb surveiller, comprising sur "over" + veiller "to watch". Veiller had been Latin vigilare "to watch" in ancient Rome. This verb was based on another word English borrowed, vigil. (Jeremy Busch's surveillance of the words in the material he reads has provided us with another very Good Word.)