Most people know that to eavesdrop is to listen in on a conversation to which one is not a party. But where does this word come from? What does it have to do with eaves and roofing?
Eavesdrop, or originally eavesdrip, is a very old word. It is originally a noun referring to the water dripping off the eaves of a building or ground on which such water would fall. From medieval times there were legal restrictions on building close to one’s property line so that the eavesdrop would not damage the neighbor’s land. From the Kentish Charter of year 868 (yfæs drypæ = eavesdrip):
An folcæs folcryht to lefænne rumæs butan twigen fyt to yfæs drypæ.
(A right of the people to live without restraint except it is uncertain in the eaves drip.)
The word eavesdropper, meaning one who stands in the eavesdrop of a building and listens to conversations within, dates to 1487. From the Nottingham Borough Records of that year, mostly in Latin except for the word in question:
Juratores...dicunt...quod Henricus Rowley...est communis evys-dropper et vagator in noctibus.
(The court…was told…under oath that Henry Rowley…is a common eavesdropper and a prowler in the night.)
Or for a fully English quote, we go to c.1515 and Richard Pynson’s Modus Tenendi Curiam Baronis:
Avb, Euesdroppers vnder mennes walles or wyndowes...to bere tales.
The verb to eavesdrop makes is not recorded until 1606. It’s not certain whether it’s a backformation of eavesdropper, or if that noun comes from the verb which existed, unrecorded, in earlier years. From the 1606 comedic play Sir Gyles Goosecappe:
We will be bold to evesdroppe.
(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition.)
Copyright 1997-2013, by David Wilton