Spy

I see you.

Dear Word Detective: Lately I’ve been reading a lot about spies, mostly Russian, and it occurred to me that I have no idea where the word “spy” came from. Is it related to, or maybe short for, “espionage”? — Boris Badenov, Undisclosed Location.

Very funny. You think I don’t recognize you from the old Rocky & Bullwinkle show? How are things in Pottsylvania? Natasha? Mister Big? Speaking of your depraved ilk, have you seen the FX cable series “The Americans”? It’s about two Soviet spies living as a typical couple in suburban Washington, DC in the 1980s, where they match wits with John-Boy Walton. We watched the show for a while, but eventually we realized that every week somebody was going to be kidnapped and tortured in a deserted warehouse that started to look very familiar. Not exactly John le Carre level intrigue. I think this show needs a bigger budget and much better writers.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines “spy” (the noun) as “One who spies upon or watches a person or persons secretly; a secret agent whose business it is to keep a person, place, etc., under close observation; especially one employed by a government in order to obtain information relating to the military or naval affairs of other countries, or to collect intelligence of any kind.” The noun “spy” dates back to the middle of the 13th century, derived from the Old French noun “espie,” meaning “watcher,” which was based on the verb “espier,” meaning “to spy or watch,” which also gave us the English verb “to spy” at roughly the same time in the 12th century.

But wait! There’s more! From the same Old French roots that gave us “spy” as both a noun and verb, we also developed “espionage,” which means, to quote the American Heritage Dictionary, “The act or practice of spying or of using spies to obtain secret information, as about another government or a business competitor.” “Espionage” was a bit late to the party, first appearing in English in the late 18th century, and is a fairly direct borrowing of the French “espionnage,” from “espion,” a spy. So “spy” is more than just a shortened form of “espionage,” but the two words are closely related.

Although we use the verb “spy” today primarily in the sense of “surreptitious observer,” one notable exception to the word’s cloak and dagger overtones is the use of “spy” to mean simply “notice,” “discern,” “discover” or “detect” (“Looking out to Sea in hopes of seeing a Ship, then fancy at a vast Distance I spy’d a Sail.” Daniel Defoe, 1719). This sense is a development of the earlier use of “spy” to mean “to examine closely, observe carefully” (“I spied the whole ground, and never saw a beast.” 1893), which lives on in our use of “spyglass” to mean a small telescope. Spies may use spyglasses to spy on someone, but the term comes from this “examine carefully” sense.

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