NOOBSian Stuart Semmel of Yale University has passed along two new (to me) NOOBs. The first is the verb “liaise,” a back-formation from the French noun “liaison,” which originally meant a sauce-thickening agent (who knew?) but has since referred to a close (sometimes intimate) connection between two people or organizations. The OED describes “liaise” as “originally Services’ slang” and provides a first citation from 1928: ” [Lord Fisher said in 1916] I want a soldier..to keep in touch with the Navy and so ‘liaise’ or exchange inventions which may be suitable.”

It is certainly a Britishism (which achieved massive gains in popularity in the last four decades of the 20th century), as seen in the Google Ngrams Viewer graph:


I had heard it over the years, but mostly in the context of critiques of business jargon and “verbing” nouns. Back in 2005, in a column about back-formations, the great William Safire of the New York Times commented, “I don’t like liaise, a self-important, bureaucratic substitute for ‘work with.'” (He added, interestingly, “I like ‘surveil,’ because ‘surveillance’ has more of a pervasive and sinister quality than ‘watch’ or ‘follow.'”)

As the graph shows, “liaise” has gained some popularity in the U.S., but still is used much less than across the pond. Since Safire’s column, it has been used (by apparently American writers and sources) fifteen times in the Times, ten of them since 2010. This came from a February 2016 article about Libya:

Libyan officials and news media outlets have reported the presence of American, French, British and Italian special forces units in the country in recent weeks, ostensibly on reconnaissance missions and to liaise with local militias.

Next up: Semmel’s second NOOB (and therein lies a clue).

17 thoughts on ““Liaise”

  1. I totally agree that liaise exists entirely to make ordinary actions seem more impressive. Years ago I worked with someone who used to write in their monthly report (to give but one example) that they had ‘liaised’ with IT over such and such an issue. What they had actually done is log a ticket with the help desk.

    Around the same time I also noticed that everything was becoming ‘strategic’. Nobody just had a plan anymore – they had a ‘strategy’ and a ‘strategic plan’. And they didn’t simply suggest a way of doing something – they ‘set out a series of strategic steps’ which would ultimately lead to their ‘strategic goals’. But I digress…

  2. I hear “liaise” a great deal in the library world, which is an odd subset of business/government-speak. Academic librarians, in particular, are encouraged to “liaise” with departments with whose subjects they are familiar. I would agree with Safire that “surveil” is less annoying.

  3. The use of liaison teams between military organizations – including U.S. – is long established as a means of communication and to ensure that their plans and activities are well coordinated. They will have specific roles and responsibilities that extend well beyond “working with”. The business world routinely adopts military terms and misuses them to inflate its own self-importance.

  4. It’s interesting, Ben, that you appear readier to accept that awful 1960s back-formation “surveil” when there are so many other Anglo-Saxon verbs more eminently suited to define implicitly covert degrees of observation or watchfulness. I believe that to “liaise” in its initial fully defined sense specifically refers merely to exchanging and comparing information, interpretations, forecasts or prognostications with a friendly party about the perceived intentions and possible future activities of a rival organisation. Any resulting action is not liaison but activity.
    The inferred extension of liaison to include cooperation, coordination or “working with” another individual or body is the lazy person’s over-inflated and pompous extravagance, so well beloved of journalists on both sides of the English-speaking Atlantic.
    I’ve got to agree with John’s boredom with “strategy”. How better to inflate the importance of a tactic than to label it thus?
    Perhaps the tendency in the past few decades for business people to adopt (and adapt) military usages in matters strategic and tactical was as (a) they are useful shorthand, (b) business is nowadays a matter of dog eat dog or, (c) learning early on to speak English properly was not a priority on the shinning up the greasy pole on the annual personal development review form?

    1. I’m not sure “to surveil” is really a back-formation. I’d think of it as a literal rendering into English of the French verb surveiller. We’d already borrowed the French noun “surveillance”, where we could have used “surveyance” or “surveying”. But the English verb “to survey” doesn’t cover all the senses of surveiiler, and neither do the nouns based on it, hence the need for re-borrowing the French words even when obvious cognates were already present in English.

      1. In English the verb is from the noun surveillance; in French the noun is from the verb. Surveil is not common or in general use or old in English. In French it is: where we would use watch, such as watch your language, watch your figure, watch yourself, they use surveiller. In addition to watch, English has several other words we commonly use including monitor, oversee, supervise, invigilate, keep an eye on, besides survey. Because English had already picked up surveillance, we derived surveil from it. We didn’t need to go looking for a verb in French.

  5. I quite like liaise, though it isn’t a very nice sound. I think it has implications for creating and maintaining a relationship with another organisation. If you put someone in charge of ‘liaison’ it’s rather more than just ensuring smooth communication, but making sure that a relationship is formed and tended to. Perhaps i’m being a bit starry-eyed.

  6. Can you ditch “liaise” along with a whole set of common words such as communicate, consult, inform, discuss, advise and call everything “work with”? It’s no great surprise in the UK that a word derived from military use should grow as the population and the modern state grew after the War, with a bureaucracy called Her Majesty’s Civil Service, the workers Civil Servants, and Ministries or Departments organised as a hierarchy of Commands and Divisions. Sounds like an army doesn’t it? And after the War there was an influx of people from the Services into the Civil Service as jobs had to be found for them somewhere. Nowadays they call them Directorates, with Directors General and Directors rather than Heads of Command and Heads of Division respectively, copying business hierarchy and titles.

  7. You can’t ditch everything and just use work with because it doesn’t actually mean that.

    The Oxford dictionary definition is:
    1. Cooperate on a matter of mutual concern:
    ‘she will liaise with teachers across the country’
    1.1 (liaise between) Act as a link to assist communication between (people or groups):
    ‘civil servants who liaise between the prime minister and departmental ministers’

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