Printable Version
Pronunciation: eevz-drahp Hear it!

Part of Speech: Verb, intransitive

Meaning: To listen secretly to the conversations of others.

Notes: The term eavesdropping suggests far quainter times than we live in today. Today eavesdropping has become a profession carried out invisibly by electronic "bugs" or telephonic wiretaps. It is interesting that we have difficulty naming this activity for what it is, preferring various metaphors like bug and tap over eavesdrop. Clearly, it is a violation of privacy we would prefer not to talk about. If you eavesdrop, you are an eavesdropper guilty of eavesdropping.

In Play: This intransitive verb is commonly used with the preposition on: "I normally respect the privacy of others, but I did find out about my current job by eavesdropping on a conversation at a neighboring table in a cafe." Since English-speaking peoples now know enough to come in out of the rain (see Word History), most eavesdropping today is conducted inside: "Be careful as you to close the door: Ms. Nosewaithe, my secretary, may be eavesdropping on the other side."

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 (eaves) where water drips like so many words from someone's lips. Eaves comes from Old English yfes, a descendent of Proto-Indo-European upo "up, over", which also gave us over, above, and up while providing Greek with hyper "over", Latin super "over", and Sanskrit upa "near, under" in Upanishads, the canon of treatises elaborating on the Hindu Vedas, from upa + ni "down + sad "sit." (It is OK if you overhear us say, "Tack," to Sara Johnsson of Malmö, Sweden, for suggesting today's word—tjuvlyssna in Swedish.)

Dr. Goodword,

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