The word “stakeout,” despite being a very concrete and kinetic word, has an etymology that quite fluidly and, at times, rather abstractly traces through several stakes in history—if by “stakes” we are referring to posts laid along a line to mark a specific location in space, or in the case of this example, locations in time.
At the front desk of the Red Drape Inn, Mahira Patel gazed out the window at the two men sitting in a car.
“See those two guys over there? I think they’re doing a stakeout.”
“What gives you that idea?” said the stranger sitting in the chair across from her.
“They’ve been sitting in that car for over an hour. And when they pulled in, two other guys who were there for hours just pulled out. And the guy in room 16 keeps poking through the blinds every ten minutes. Definitely a police stakeout.”
“That’s an astute observation,” said the stranger. He was wearing a black wool coat and sitting with his legs crossed. He had entered and began asking several questions about the kind of guests her parents usually had, but had not asked for a room. At first he made Mahira nervous, but then she found him entertaining. She chewed bubble gum to offset the nervousness and fiddled on her phone while he rattled off questions. Mahira was sixteen and could already run the place if she wanted to, but her parents would make her go to college first. If they were there and not at home, they would have scolded her for chewing gum at the front desk.
“Have you ever pondered at the origins of the word?” said the stranger. “Stakeout. Such an odd word for humans to use. It sounds much like staccato, which is a fitting description of its pronunciation.”
Mahira popped a bubble. “I can look it up for you.” In no time she had the word pulled up on her phone. “An act of surveillance to detect criminal activity or find a wanted person.”
The stranger stroked the buttons on his coat. “But that is the definition, not the origin. Your accommodations are humble, but I am thinking of the etymology, of building a case for the entire history of a word.”
Mahira rolled her eyes. “Sure.”
In the dark gray Oldsmobile parked behind the sign for the Red Drape Inn, Officer Bailey said, through a mouthful of General Tso’s chicken, “If you think about it, this is a takeout stakeout takeout.”
McNiece, tilting his box of rice to get at that one solid clump in the corner, was confused. “Why would you say ‘takeout’ twice?”
Bailey animated his chopstick like a wand. “Well, we’re having takeout, doing a stakeout, to see if someone is going to try and take a man out.”
“I didn’t think of that,” said McNiece.
“What does stakeout mean, anyway? Why do we use that word?”
“Beats me. That’s beyond my pay grade.”
McNiece turned his eyes back to the white door of room 16, which was three doors down from the middle of the inn shaped like a giant staple.
“A covert watch,” Detective Marsden said to himself. He remembered looking it up as a child when his father first told him what a stakeout was. That’s what he was doing at this hour, staking out the police officers staking out the room, until he had it narrowed down to one of about three rooms they seemed to keep their eyes locked on. He had a hunch it was room 16.
Mr. Lehane, whichever room he was in, wasn’t talking to the police. He knew too much about someone nobody knew too little of. The cops could keep their watch on him all night, but he wasn’t going to talk to them. He might, however, talk to a private party, someone who could find him a better place to hide. Someone with connections.
Marsden kept his back against the driver’s seat, which was lowered down so that from a distance one would have to be looking out for him in order to see him. He was piggybacking someone else’s stakeout, which made him feel lazy as much as it made him feel clever. His eyes crossed from window to window. A question pelted his brain.
“But how did stake and out combine to mean watching covertly?”
“A stake is just a stick with a pointy end,” said Mahira.
“You mean a stick,” said the stranger, “the end of which is not flat or rounded like the top of an I, but sharp and slanted like the top of an A.”