The very French history of the word 'surveillance'

By The Vocabularist
Words unpicked

Published
Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The fearsome Jean-Paul Marat was the best-known member of the Committee of Surveillance.

Security experts are reporting on the government's surveillance effort. The word came into English at the time of the French revolution, writes Trevor Timpson.

Surveillance is a very French word - both halves of it developed in a characteristically French way, from the Latin super (over) and vigilantia (watchfulness).

In fact for a long time after it caught on in English at the end of the 18th Century it was one of those French terms which was kept in the original because it evoked France so well - like Crêpe Suzette or Arc de Triomphe.

To begin with it was usually marked as a foreign word, in italics, or with an explanatory translation added.

To many English-speakers it denoted a sinister revolutionary climate of spying, guarding, denunciations and night searches - when, Dickens wrote, suspicion "delivered over any good and innocent person to any bad and guilty one" and "every town-gate and village taxing-house had its band of citizen-patriots with their national muskets".

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
GCHQ listening post in Cornwall. The global surveillance industry includes schemes with names such as "shell trumpet" and "boundless informant".

France's first Comite de Surveillance was set up in 1792, at first to keep watch over suspicious strangers, then to recommend suspects for arrest. Local surveillance committees were started all over the country.

During the reign of terror, said the historian Thiers: "As the prisons had been just cleared by death, the Committee of Surveillance began to fill them again by issuing fresh orders of arrest."

Its most famous member was the fearsome Jean-Paul Marat, who told the French "Five or six hundred heads cut off would have assured your happiness" and rebuked them for "false humanity".

The French flavour of surveillance has been lost - although for some the practice of the authorities in scooping up the messages of "whole populations" means it still sounds sinister to some.

But the veillance (vigilantia) part of it is related to a wide range of very respectable words meaning unsleeping, attentive, active or lively.

It is one of those words which experts trace back to the common roots of most European languages - related not only to Latin words like vigil and vigour but also ones from Anglo-Saxon, like awake and watchful.

It is a cousin of "vegetable" - which originally denoted a plant as something "having life". "Vegetus" in Latin meant "lively" - the opposite of what "vegetative" means today.

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