Friday, August 20, 2010

Eavesdrop ain't what it used to be

I wondered about the origin of the word eavesdrop. Surely had to do with ‘eaves’ as in the eaves of a house?
Etymonline says the word means to “lurk near a place to hear what is said inside,” and dates from around 1600, and is probably a back-formation from eavesdropper. The original notion is listening from under the eaves of a house, originally yfesdrype the place around a house where the rainwater drips off the roof. So eaves is a shortening of a word that included ‘drype’ - presumably as in the dripping of water.
Eave or yfes comes from Old English efes meaning the edge of something.

EAVESDROP, v.i. Secretly to overhear a catalogue of the crimes and vices of another or yourself.
—Gopete Sherany
Here’s what the Devil’s Dictionary has to say about eavesdropping:
A lady with one of her ears applied
To an open keyhole heard, inside,
Two female gossips in converse free -
The subject engaging them was she.
“I think,” said one, “and my husband thinks
That she’s a prying, inquisitive minx!”
As soon as no more of it she could hear
The lady, indignant, removed her ear.
“I will not stay,” she said, with a pout,
“To hear my character lied about!”
So of course you know that eavesdropping is listening in on someone else’s conversation. Evesdropping as an English word appeared in the written record more than 500 years ago. At the time it was a crime and in fact appeared in a legal judgement. The court proceedings were recorded in Latin and it is this English word snuggled in there that shows its pure English roots, since there must not have been a Latin equivalent.The crime was related to the word since over the edges of a house would hang the eaves of the roof. When it rained the water would drip from the eaves and the space between the drip line and the house was called the eavesdrop. Secret listeners might stand there outside a window and listen in on private conversations. 
The Latin quote I mentioned translates as “jurors say that Henry Rowley is a common eavesdropper” and this actually is quite revealing about how jurors were different in England 500 years ago than the jury you might have seen on TV. At that time a fair trial was fair because you had local people involved who knew what was going on in the neighbourhood. The jury originally were essentially the witnesses. These days the jury is supposed to go into a trial with an open mind and let the lawyers make their arguments. Back then old Henry Rowley was convicted because the jury knew he was an eavesdropper before the trial even began. 
Incidentally, the eaves of a house or building are not plural so that on each side, there would be an eave. Both sides are eaves if we respect the Old English history of the word. The Oxford English Dictionary thinks that the root of eaves is the same as for the word over.

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