Monday, January 14, 2008


A comment has poured in to GrammarSnot with this provocative question: "What's your call on the use of 'surveil' as a verb?"

Surveil is a big fave among law enforcement and other authoritarian types, who love to sound way cool and no-nonsense. It is a back-formation from the perfectly legitimate surveillance, which comes to us courtesy of la belle francaise, and we should probably give it a fair hearing--we use hundreds of other back-formations daily, without giving them a second thought. Burgle comes to mind, along with enthuse and scavenge.

No less an authority than the Oxford English Dictionary recognizes it, citing 1960 as its date of first use: "1960 Federal Suppl. (U.S.) CLXXXII. 750/1 The plaintiff also stresses that the store as a whole, and the customer exits especially, were closely surveilled."

According to both the Random House Unabridged and Webster's 10th Collegiate (based on Webster's Third, published in 1961 to general approbation), surveil is legit.

That said, we at GrammarSnot are not in favor of surveil. Our reasons are as follows:
  1. It's jargon--i.e., in use in a very specific and limited community and not shared by the wider English-speaking public.
  2. It violates the cardinal principle of good writing and speaking: clarity. Observed, watched, and kept under surveillance are all clearer and the first two are more concise.
  3. It's ridiculous. Anyone using it immediately brands him- or herself as both pompous and of limited imagination.
So there you have it, Grammies: There'll be no surveilling for you tonight!


Carrie said...

Bravo! I concur :) Though I will admit to having used the word, I will also chalk it up to a weak character and a tendency to imitate. In all seriousness, I do agree that the use of the verb reflects a lack of imagination and just plain sounds goofy, so I hereby resolve not to use it any more!

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