Dear Word Detective: Lately I have pondered the origins of the word “eavesdropping.” My guess is that it came around after too many people fell from the eaves of their houses while attempting to listen in to the conversations being held in the room below. Now I am sure this is not entirely accurate, so perhaps you could explain the more correct, but most likely not as amusing, origins? — Robin Smith.
Oh, I don’t know about that. The real story of “eavesdrop” is a veritable chucklefest, involving building construction, Medieval zoning codes, and the decline of privacy in urban civilization. Wait, wait, it gets better. Angry neighbors in the rain! Whoa, I have to sit down for a moment.
OK, so it’s not funny, but the true story of “eavesdropping” is interesting and, given the state of the world today, perhaps timelier than we would like. Not that I have anything to hide, Officer. In fact, I wouldn’t mind them (you know, Them) recording all my phone calls if I could get a copy. I often take notes when I talk on the telephone, but they only make sense while I’m actually on the phone. Two days later, it’s “Whose phone number is this and who is Lertmurp?”
So, to begin at the beginning, the “eaves” of a house or building are the parts of the roof that extend beyond the walls of the structure. (Occasionally you’ll hear the bits of an attic deep under the slanty part of the roof called “the eaves,” but that’s not really correct.) The word “eaves” comes from the Old English “efes,” meaning “edge of a roof.” The “s” on our modern “eaves” is carried over from the Old English word and did not originally denote a plural form, but it was interpreted that way (so “eaves” takes a plural verb) and today it is not uncommon to hear references to a single “eave.”
The purpose of “eaves,” in the days before gutters were common, was to carry rainwater away from the foundation of the house (where, as any homeowner knows, it can play all sorts of mischief with the structural integrity of the building). The use of eaves in building houses is ancient, and by an equally ancient custom houses could not be built within two feet of a property line lest the rainwater shed from the eaves cause problems for a neighbor.
This eaves-deep zone around a house or other building where water from the roof was likely to drip was known in Old English as the “yfesdrype” or “eavesdrip,” which later was modified to “eavesdrop.” So, at first, “eavesdrop” was a place, not an action. But, human nature being what it is, snoops quickly discovered that if they wished to find out what their neighbors were up to, the “eavesdrop” near an open window was the place to stand and listen. Thus, by the early 1600s, “to eavesdrop” meant “to stand in the eavesdrop of a house to hear conversations within” and, more generally, “to listen to private conversations” by any means.