• eavesdrop •
Part of Speech: Verb, intransitive
Meaning: To secretly listen in on a conversation between other people.
Notes: The term eavesdropping suggests far quainter times than we live in today, when people had to stand outside your house and press their ears to a door or window to gather information about you (see History). Today eavesdropping is a full-time vocation carried out invisibly by electronic "bugs" or telephonic wire-taps. If you eavesdrop, you are an eavesdropper guilty of eavesdropping.
In Play: English-speaking peoples now know enough to come in out of the rain to eavesdrop: "Be careful as you leave not to open the door abruptly; Ms. Nosewaithe, my secretary, may be eavesdropping on the other side. I wouldn't want her to fall and sue me." While the professionals today use electronic equipment, lay eavesdropping remains quite wide-spread: "When I'm seeing someone, I like to gather a bit of background information on them by eavesdropping on conversations between their acquaintances."
Word History: Today's verb is from a noun that originally pointed to a person who stands in the eavesdrop of a house in order to hear what is being spoken inside. The eavesdrop (or eavesdrip) of a house is that area beneath the overhang of the roof (eave) where water drips like so many words from someone's lips (if you don't have gutters). Eaves comes from Old English yfes, a descendent of PIE *upo, which also gave us over, above, and up, while providing Greek with hyper and Latin super. (Today we thank Patricia Castellanos of Uruguay for spotting the odd disjuncture of sound and meaning in today's word.)
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