Friday, August 12, 2011

The Language of Confusion: Under Surveillance

I come up with the titles for these before I write the posts. If I have a title, I’ll find some way to use it.

Anyway, I like the word surveillance. It fascinates me. First, it has the word veil in it, but it’s not a physical thing, it’s an act. Next, it’s related to the word survey, which is related to convey and conveyance—no l in that one. And despite sounding similar, purvey isn’t really related (more like an in-law). The way certain words evolve in different ways is amazing. Then again, I’m a huge nerd.

First, let’s look at the con- words. Convey came first, in the early fourteenth century, meaning “go along with” before becoming a euphemism for theft and finally taking on the transport definition we have today. The word can be traced back through Anglo French and Old French to the Vulgar Latin conviare, to accompany. Con- comes from com-, the Classical Latin prefix meaning with or together, while -viare comes from via—road. So it’s literally, “together with on the road.” Adding -ance, a noun-making suffix, came in the mid fifteenth century, changing it from a verb to a synonym for a transport.

Survey came after convey, sometime in the late fourteenth century. It’s original meaning was “consider, contemplate,” as one might survey his/her land. When it’s noun version came about, it didn’t have the -ance ending, it was just survey, like “I’m taking a survey.” Surveillance didn’t show up until the nineteenth century and was directly taken from a French word meaning “oversee, watch.” Appropriate since the sur- prefix means over and veil comes from veiller, which means watch. As to where the -ance came from in that word, I have no idea, but -ance evolved in Old French to replace a Latin suffix, so it makes sense they would stick it on there.

Despite having similar origins, survey and surveillance are not the same word. They’re more like cousins, one from a France, the other from the United States, but with French ancestry. They’re not completely dissimilar, but they have some striking differences. Survey relates to evaluation while surveillance is straight observation.

And that solves that mystery.

Thanks to:
Southwestern University’s page on Vulgar Latin.
1066 And All That—A page on the evolution of Modern English from Old French.


  1. I like the way you put it, survey and surveillance as cousins.

  2. These are seriously great posts! So informative! :D


Please validate me.