Published : Feb 24, 2006 00:00 IST

THE eaves of your house are the edges of the roof that jut out and allow the rain to run off without soaking the outer walls. The space of ground below the eaves - a foot or two from the walls - is called the eavesdrop, originally the eavesdrip, a word traced back to a Kentish charter written in 868, about as far back as the English language goes.

Why do you and I have a "need to know" this architectural information? Because spies and snoops, eager to listen in on conversations that went on inside the house, would press themselves inside the eavesdrop, usually near a window. In the year 1515, Richard Pynson's edition of "Modus Tenendi Curiam Baronis" warned unsuspecting citizens of "Euesdroppers vnder mennes walles or wyndowes... to bere tales." Sir William Blackstone, in his 1809 legal commentaries, described the verb to eavesdrop as "to listen under walls or windows, or the eaves of a house, to harken after the discourse, and thereupon to frame slanderous and mischievous tales."

Thus was born snoopspeak, the language of the intercepted communication of personal intimacies and national secrets. (The word is bottomed on spookspeak, the lingo of spies, familiarly called spooks, and coined today on the analogy of newspeak in George Orwell's 1984.)

When a word is born in snoopspeak, it never dies; no advance in technology can render it obsolete. Take wiretap, noun and verb, now the subject of congressional hearings after The New York Times' expose of intercepted overseas calling by suspected terrorists conducted by the "Big Ear" of the N.S.A. (officially the National Security Agency, but known and feared widely as "No Such Agency").

It predates the telephone and recalls the Civil War. "In that band of wire-tappers," wrote Jesse Bunnell in 1893, "I had the honour to serve for four years. In 1863, I was appointed or employed as a telegraph operator in the field." The meaning was apparently "one who tapped out the code on the telegraph key," but at the turn of the century a new sense emerged: as the wired telephone became ubiquitous, the potential of more effective spying was noted. U.S. Reports, a publication of the United States Supreme Court, predicted with extraordinary prescience in 1929: "The progress of science in furnishing the Government with means of espionage is not likely to stop with wire-tapping."

Beer drinkers who tell bartenders to "draw one" know that another sense of the verb to tap means "to draw liquid from a keg or other container"; by analogy, the interception of current from a wire transmitting sound became a wiretap. (The alert reader will have noted the first use above of the retronym "wired telephone", which will one day be required to distinguish the fast-disappearing "land line" from the omnipresent cellphone.)

As was foreseen in 1929, the wiretap has been superseded by far more sophisticated means of interception by satellite, miniaturised "bugs" and other means that I am not about to face jail for vouchsafing to you. "Not until 1986," Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center informs me, "did Congress update the 1968 federal wiretap law to include `electronic' communications".

Why, in this wireless, Bluetoothy world, do we continue to use the term wiretap? Paul Bresson, a spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), says, "I think it's one of those terms that seems outdated but is still in use, like `record store' - we all know what it is even if we buy CD's and DVD's there." Is it on the way out? "Because of the sophistication of today's technology, wiretapping is not about capturing one wire. In the case of a cellphone or a personal digital assistant, wiretap doesn't seem right. Electronic surveillance is the preferred term, but it is used interchangeably with wiretap." You just can't keep a good invasion of privacy down.

What do you do when you conduct surveillance (from the French surveiller, literally "to watch over"), whether "shadowing" (following) a suspect, "staking out" his residence or tuning in on transmissions from his vehicle, as the N.S.A. did so successfully during the Cold War in listening to what Kremlin leaders had to say? (When satellite surveillance broke down for a few seconds, the target was said to be in the gap; for more than a minute, he was in the black, causing great teeth-gnashing in "the Citadel".)

What you as spook or gumshoe do is surveil, "to closely observe or overhear", the chic new verb back-formed from surveillance. But if you are going on television to praise or denounce President George W. Bush for his decision to surveil communications in the U.S. without a judicial warrant, how do you pronounce it?

"Some people pronounce surveillance like `sir-VAY-yance,' which is truer to the French pronunciation," says Josh Guenter, a pronunciation editor at Merriam-Webster. "It follows that they would back-form surveil to sound like `sir-VAY.' But what we have on the books is surveil with the l."

That confusion comes from the tendency of many English speakers to assume that if a word comes from the French, the last consonant is dropped. "Sometimes people mistakenly drop even more, like in vichyssoise," enunciates the lexicographer Enid Pearsons. "You often hear it pronounced `vee-she-SWAH,' but in English, `vee-she-SWAZ' is correct. Another is coup de grace. Some Americans pronounce it `coo-de-GRAW' when they should say `coo-de-grawss.' Surveil looks French, so people think they should drop the l at the end. There's also some influence from the pronunciation of survey, but that's a word with a different meaning."

Different, but similar. Survey is "to look over comprehensively"; surveil is "to observe closely and continually, usually with suspicion." Remember to double the l when you are the surveillant who is surveilling the suspect. Unfortunately, there seems to be no word yet for the subject, object or target of the surveillance. Nobody wants to be the surveillee because it's getting harder to stay in the black.

New York Times Service
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