What's in a Word | All Blogs

Watching how “oui” spell, say “surveillance”

By Debra Dobbins

“Surveillance” is a tricky word to spell—and to pronounce.

Breaking the word down into its syllables (sur-veil-lance) helps in spelling it. Sur is a short, common prefix meaning over, so it is not hard to remember. A veil is a cloth that brides and other women sometimes wear over their faces, and a lance is a long, sharp weapon that knights used to carry into battle.

Often creating a story around a word helps us to remember its spelling. My story for surveillance would just be a scene out of a movie: Sir Lancelot is jousting (fighting with a lance) with another knight in an arena. In the stands sits a princess with a veil over her face. Perhaps both knights are vying (competing) for her affections. Using this story, I just have to remind myself that Sir becomes sur in the word surveillance.

Sir Lancelot, by the way, was a highly respected hero among the Knights of the Round Table, according to Arthurian legends.

While we are taught to sound out words, that strategy does not work well with surveillance. It comes from the French language, and French uses many letters that are not heard when words are spoken, or they sound like different letters altogether to an English speaker.

Take, for example, “mais oui!” It means “but yes!” and is used as a hearty agreement. Sounding it out, we may want to say “mays-ow-eye,” but the words are actually spoken as “may wee.” We do not hear the “s” in “mais,” and “oui” sounds nothing like its actual letters. So goes French. Though a beautiful language and worth studying, it requires quite a bit of memorization.

Surveillance is pronounced as sur-vay-lance. It means a close watch kept over someone, according to Webster’s. It comes from the same Latin word for “vigil,” also a watch that is kept.

To read the complete story on why federal officials want more surveillance of communication on the Web, go to www.gjsentinel.com or to our print edition or e-edition.

The French flag has the same colors as the American flag.


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