January 11, 2016

"The new way police are surveilling you: Calculating your threat ‘score.’"

A very interesting article, which I'm sending you over to read.

I just want to observe the acceptance of the verb "to surveil," which is a backformation from "surveillance." The OED has the first usage in 1960 in the Federal Supplement of all places — the written opinions of the U.S. federal district courts: "The plaintiff also stresses that the store as a whole, and the customer exits especially, were closely surveilled." I had not thought it was an acceptable word. I considered it something you might use jocosely or in depicting the speech of a cop or a bureaucrat. Here's a 2002 article in The Atlantic:
Your reaction to surveil is fairly typical of the response people have to a back-formation they aren't used to seeing: they don't quite believe that the thing is a proper word. But surveil deserves to be a word, it seems to me, because survey threatens to mean a technique of social science or, more likely, land measurement (for instance, here's a recent citation from The Philadelphia Inquirer: "One commando killed a soldier whose job was to surveil the border ..."). Nonetheless, some other back-formations that were coined long ago have never managed to become standard, even though no exact synonyms are at hand. Enthuse is a prime example. Though the word has been in use since before the Civil War, most current dictionaries include warnings that it still irritates many people. Ultimately, all we have to go by is our own taste. Does a word irritate us? Then we should try to find some other way to make our point. If we can't—well, then we've discovered what the word is for.
All right. I probably won't use it myself, but I'm going to stop being irritated with other people about that, which — in a really subtly advanced and weird police state — would minutely affect my threat score.

ADDED: I had thought "survey" was the real word, making the backformation unnecessary. The Atlantic writer gives a reason against that use of "survey," but to me, it's familiar from the poem "The Solitude of Alexander Selkirk" by Willliam Cowper:
I AM monarch of all I survey;
My right there is none to dispute;
From the centre all round to the sea
I am lord of the fowl and the brute
O Solitude! where are the charms
That sages have seen in thy face?
Better dwell in the midst of alarms,
Than reign in this horrible place.

I am out of humanity's reach;
I must finish my journey alone;
Never hear the sweet music of speech—
I start at the sound of my own;
The beasts that roam over the plain
My form with indifference see—
They are so unacquainted with man,
Their tameness is shocking to me.

Society, Friendship, and Love
Divinely bestow'd upon man,
Oh had I the wings of a dove
How soon would I taste you again!
My sorrows I then might assuage
In the ways of religion and truth,
Might learn from the wisdom of age,
And be cheer'd by the sallies of youth.

Ye winds that have made me your sport,
Convey to this desolate shore
Some cordial endearing report
Of a land I shall visit no more.
My friends, do they now and then send
A wish or a thought after me?
O tell me I yet have a friend,
Though a friend I am never to see.

How fleet is a glance of the mind!
Compared with the speed of its flight,
The tempest itself lags behind,
And the swift-wingèd arrows of light.
When I think of my own native land,
In a moment I seem to be there;
But, alas! recollection at hand
Soon hurries me back to despair.

But the sea-fowl is gone to her nest,
The beast is laid down in his lair;
Even here is a season of rest,
And I to my cabin repair.
There's mercy in every place;
And mercy—encouraging thought!—
Gives even affliction a grace,
And reconciles man to his lot.
Alexander Selkirk was an 18th century Scottish sailor who was marooned for 4 years on a deserted island in the South Pacific. He's the inspiration not just for that poem but for "Robinson Crusoe."

41 comments:

traditionalguy said...

It's harder and harder to get the government's lazy slaves to work these days. Surveille them I say, surveille them all.

Drones are a very useful tool. And just wait until we outlaw using currency.

jimbino said...

Ultimately, all we have to go by is our own taste. Does a word irritate us? Wrong! What we have to go by, ultimately, are examples drawn from the usage in the speech and writing of those, like Christopher Hitchens, Annie Dillard, and Ted Cruz, whom we respect for having mastered English usage.

What's wrong with "placed under surveillance" as a cure for "surveil"?

Oso Negro said...

Fortunately, there is no chance that such threat scores will have the least political motivation. On the other hand, as a white male gun-owning conservative who is hostile to the excessive grasp of government, I wonder how many points I register just by getting out of bed every morning.

buster said...

How about "watch" the exits or the border? Ordinary English.

Bob said...

One of my favorite hymns is "When I Surveil the Wondrous Cross."

Rae said...

Yet another way the man keeps us down. First the credit score, now this. Fight the power!

Robert Cook said...

There are many "back-formed" words that bother me--"surveill" used as a verb is not one of them--but the one that grates worst of all is "impact" used as a verb or adjective (as in "this will impact you" or "this impacted me" or "that was impactful").

AAAARRRRGGGGHHHH!!

buster said...

How about "watch" the exits or the border? Ordinary English.

buster said...

I love surfing the OED. "Clapperclaw." Now there's a word.

mccullough said...

Sounds like people need to start adopting counter surveillance measures. Could be some money to be made here for ex-CIA operations officers.

Tom B said...

Like Prof. Althouse, I will continue to refuse to use the fake word 'surveil' in any sense. Unlike Prof. Althouse, I will continue to be irritated with people who do use the word. Such usage indicates to me that the speaker or writer is not really thinking about the words they are using, and (IMO) is circumstantial evidence that they are prone to sloppy thinking.

For a time I too flirted with 'survey' as a replacement but it felt like wearing a shoe on my hand, so I have decided to be content with "put [subject] under surveillance". It seems perfectly adequate, and accurate. I wish I did not care about these things, but I do.

Ann Althouse said...

I hear different meaning in "survey" and "surveil." "Survey" is more looking over things and taking account of what is seen. "Surveil" seems like more concentrated and protracted. You're under surveillance. Feels more oppressive.

traditionalguy said...

Slavery was run by the Profession of Overseers. In that work the meaner the better. Whipping a slave for an infraction was nothing. The Overseers were dedicated to whipping innocent slaves nearly death. Now that's what sent the message to all the other slaves that the Owner wanted to send.

David said...

"One commando killed a soldier whose job was to surveil the border ...").

Poor soldier was probably so confused by "surveil" that he kept looking for borders and not hostile commandos. That was a deadly misappreciation of his primary job.

Michael K said...

Supermarket chains began to use this technology to screen your preferences in buying groceries. I have wanted to use it in studying health care quality measures. I'm not at all surprised to see the police using it. You just link databases, sort of how Obama's campaign did it.

PB said...

It's not that far a leap to convert this to a party loyalty score, like China is doing.

rhhardin said...

Backformations are fine if they're ept.

Fernandinande said...

buster said...
How about "watch" the exits or the border? Ordinary English.


"The new way police are spying on you."

Richard Dolan said...

"The OED has the first usage in 1960 in the Federal Supplement of all places — the written opinions of the U.S. federal district courts ...."

I suspect that the district courts were just picking up that usage from the affidavits of the FBI or other LEO affidavits they were seeing. Making a verb out of 'surveillance' has a "Joe Friday" ring to it.

Sammy Finkelman said...

Furst of all, it isn't government that is doing the surveilling, or any more than it did before.

There is a company that has developed a sort of violence score, based primarily on 3 sources of data, only one of which they do that themselves. That is social media postings, by which they presumably mean what is public on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest and things like that.

The other things that go into the score are a person's criminal record, including arrest record, and their credit score (people with lower credit scores being considered more prone to violence, presumably.)

It is only accessed by the Fresno police when they get a 911 call, and the result is reported not for a person, but rather, a threat score is made for the combination of all persons living at that address.

It might be simpler, and equally both useful and potentially misleading, just to use Comstat - crime statistiocs for that location.

Sammy Finkelman said...

Oso Negro said...1/11/16, 11:38 AM

I wonder how many points I register just by getting out of bed every morning.

It may depend upon how interested the company is inthe accuracy of their threat scoores - both ways. That is, it shold not tend to rate someone high when there is no threat, or few conforntations occurred, and it should see if there is something they could use that would raise the accuracy. It would need constant revision, and could reach acertain level anyway. Do they use age and sex?

Smilin' Jack said...

"The new way police are surveilling you: Calculating your threat ‘score.’"

If "watching" was good enough for Big Brother, it should be good enough for the cops.

DavidD said...

What's wrong with "spy"? Why not just call it what it is--spying?

DavidD said...

...or spying on....

I Have Misplaced My Pants said...

Dyer agreed. The scan returned Olivier as a green, but his home came back as a yellow, possibly because of someone who previously lived at his address, a police official said.

“Even though it’s not me that’s the yellow guy, your officers are going to treat whoever comes out of that house in his boxer shorts as the yellow guy,” Olivier said. “That may not be fair to me.”


This reminds me of looking at rental houses between the sale of one and the purchase of another. A house that we toured was very nice but had tons of security cameras and monitors connected to them inside the house--one in the office, one in the master bathroom, one in the kitchen even. We noped right out of there--this is in south Texas, and we didn't want to be there when the drug lord's minions failed to receive the former occupants' change of address form.

jimbino said...

The worst of all back-formations is "orientate."

The Godfather said...

Boy, Jimbino is right about "orientate". I learned that word in Basic Training in 1969, so it's not new ("I'm now going to orientate you to the M-14 rifle."). I was also struck by the phrase in the article about devices to "hoover up all cellphone data in an area". I thought that it was only the Brits who referred to using a vacuum cleaner as "hoovering" -- but maybe the WaPo writer thought "hoovering" referred to J. Edgar.

gbarto said...

Surveillance is French for watching over. It is derived from the verb surveiller, meaning to watch over. The English back formation is what we would likely have gotten if we'd just borrowed the verb from French too like exist/existence from exister and existence.

Bart Hall (Kansas, USA) said...

Two different things are happening here. One is the currently prevailing English-language tendency to add a verb-function to nouns, as in "to office". The other is Americans' ongoing ignorance of other languages, even those from which we borrow.

The French verb is "surveiller", which is most correctly to "over-watch" ... "sur-veiller" and we borrowed it earlier for our now-English "survey". So it really is the same word, and "surveil" makes the difference in English usage clear. The same thing happened with "efficace", which was borrowed three separate times to become "effective", "efficient" and "efficacious". And with "gentil", also borrowed *four* separate times to become "gentle", "genteel", "jaunty", and "Gentile".

The point is that English is a phenomenally fluid and syncretist language. Always has been.

As illustration ... Eenie, Meenie, Minie, Mo are distortions of the ancient Celtic language present in Britain before the arrival of Romans, Angles, Saxons, Vikings, French, and so on. They mean One, Two, Three, Four. Somehow we missed out on the Celtic 5,6, and 7, but we retain distortions of 8,9, and 10. You might remember them as Hickory, Dickory, Dock.

Got a problem with "surveil"? -- don't use it. If enough people don't use the thing it'll die out.

JCC said...

As young cops writing affidavits in the early '70's, we always considered "survey" to be the verb of the noun "surveillance." Not every magistrate agreed, and we were occasionally required to alter such to "surveil" or "observe" (or something), but then, judges are a ruling class unto themselves. I always thought "surveil" to be something made-up. I don't think it was in my '60's version Webster's that I carried in my briefcase at work. It still grates.

But Mom was an English major.

tim in vermont said...

we borrowed it earlier for our now-English "survey".

We didn't borrow it, they forced it on us by conquest.

tim in vermont said...

I am sure that there are many statistically significant factors which they will not be allowed to include in their calculations.

EMD said...

Robert Cook - "Impactful" is a monstrosity that should never be uttered in mixed or any kind of company.

JCC said...

On this subject, BTW, I always hated the use of 'disrespect' as a verb, as in "They disrespected me.", but it seems to have gained respect these days.

Oh well. I'm not going to reorientate so it becomes impactful on me. I will remain unphased.

jimbino said...

Apropos back-formations, last week I heard Doc Martin say, "You have a problem with one teste."

Anthony said...

People arguing language use typically claim to fall into either "descriptivist" or "prescriptivist" camps. Eric S. Raymond proposed that many (including himself) in fact are "functionalist", and defines it as such:

The justification for the functionalist position is just as simple: language is a tool for conveying meaning. Changes that increase its capacity to convey useful distinctions are good. Changes that decrease its capacity to convey useful distinctions are bad. Changes that have neither effect are neutral.

In the functionalist paradigm, creating "surveil" as a verb increases the English language's ability to convey distinctions, because the connotation of "surveil" is very different than the connotation of "survey", and in a way which neither "watch", "observe", nor "spy" really quite capture. Surveillance is an assignment, watching not always so. Observing implies looking at something specific. Spying implies a degree of deception which surveillance doesn't.

Surveil is kind of an ugly word, but the activity it describes is kind of an ugly activity.

ken in tx said...

In Alabama, in the 60s, the Klan used to send out anonymous warnings, printed in red ink, saying, "The KKK is watching you." A classmate gave me one of these slips, and I sent it to a friend as a joke. After that my mail was routinely opened by postal inspectors. It wasn't the KKK that was surveilling me.

Rusty said...

traditionalguy said...
Slavery was run by the Profession of Overseers. In that work the meaner the better. Whipping a slave for an infraction was nothing. The Overseers were dedicated to whipping innocent slaves nearly death. Now that's what sent the message to all the other slaves that the Owner wanted to send.

No they weren't. Whippings were not matter of course. Slaves were sometimes whipped to serve as a lesson to the others but you don't get maximum output by you chattel if they,1. live in fear 2. Are too weak to work. Nice cartoon though.

JCC said...

@ Anthony -

"...the activity it describes is kind of an ugly activity"

Trying to follow - undiscovered - a professional criminal(s) who is trying to discover police surveillance and then lose it can be almost an art form, or a choreographed group movement maybe, even when done in automobiles. Anyway, something worthwhile and challenging, kind of fun actually. And if it works out so that you're sitting outside when the bad guys stick up a bank or something, certainly beneficial for the public.

I've never done this in a national security scenario, but I can well imagine it to be more challenging and more rewarding when successful.

Eric Landgraf said...

Is this a homeork assignment?

Will it be followed by a test? Essay or multiple choice?

Will there be math questions?

if it is a tet then will there be cookies and milk after the exam? It makes a difference to me. I like to be motivated?

What kind of cookies? Oatmeal raisin is my favorite. What kind of milk? I hope it is chocolate milk.

Eric Landgraf said...

Watched? Observed? Viewed? Looked at? Perceived? Kept under surveillance?

Beheld? Spied upon?