origin of ‘eavesdrop’


the eavesdropper under the bed - The Sketch - 5 September 1928

The eavesdropper under the bed: Babe O’Day (Goodee Montgomery) overhears “Beef” Saunders (Edward Gargan) threatening Bobby Randall (Bobby Jarvis).

photograph from an article about

“Good News”, the “hundred -per-cent” American musical show recently produced at the Carlton with American principals, but with an English chorus

published in The Sketch (London) of 5th September 1928






eavesdrop: to listen secretly to a conversation




The obsolete noun eavesdrop denoted the dripping of water from the eaves of a building and the space of ground which is liable to receive the rain-water thrown off by the eaves of a building.

This noun dates back to the 9th century and was originally eavesdrip, from the nouns eaves and drip; it was afterwards refashioned after the noun drop.

The noun eaves is from Old English efes, which was singular. The final -s has been mistaken for the mark of the plural (as in riches, originally a spelling variant of the archaic noun richesse; in modern French, richesse means wealth and richness). Of Germanic origin, eaves is probably cognate with over.

The noun eavesdripeavesdrop, was chiefly used with reference to the ancient custom or law which prohibited a proprietor from building at a less distance than two feet from the boundary of his land, lest he should injure his neighbour’s land by the water dripping from his eaves.

The legal term right of drip denoted an easement which entitled the owner of a house to let the water from his eaves drip on his neighbour’s land.

The noun eavesdropper originally denoted one who stands within the eavesdrop of a house to overhear what is going on inside. It is first attested in the Presentments at the Sessions of the Borough of Nottingham, dated 1st October 1487, written mainly in Latin:

(1885 edition)
Juratores Constabulariorum dicunt, super sacramentum suum, quod Henricus Rowley, de Notingham, in Comitatu villae Notingham, yoman, die Jovis proximo ante festum Sancti Michaëlis Archangeli, anno regni Regis Henrici Septimi tertio, ac diversis aliis diebus et vicibus, communiter et usualiter, apud Notingham praedictam, est communis evysdropper et vagator in noctibus, in perturbationem populi Domini Regis et contra pacem suam.
The jurors of the Constables say, upon their oath, that Henry Rowley, of Nottingham, in the County of the town of Nottingham, yeoman, on Thursday next before the feast of Saint Michael the Archangel, in the third year of the reign of King Henry the Seventh, and upon divers other days and occasions, commonly and usually, at Nottingham aforesaid, is a common eavesdropper and night-wanderer, to the perturbation of our Lord the King’s folk and against his peace.

The word was thus defined in Les Termes de la Ley: or Certaine difficult and obscure Words and Termes of the Common Lawes and Statutes of this Realme now in vse expounded and explained (London, 1636), by John Rastell (circa 1475-1536) and his son, William Rastell (circa 1508-1565):

Euesdroppers are such as stand vnder walls or windowes by night or day to heare newes, and to carry them to others to make strife and debate amongst their Neighbors, those are euill members in the Cōmon-wealth, and therefore by the Statute of Westminst. I. cap. 33. are to bee punished.

Because the verb eavesdrop is first attested more than one century after the noun eavesdropper, it is often said that the former is a back-formation (by subtraction of the agent ending -er) from the latter; but the very existence of the noun seems to imply the pre-existence of the verb.

The first known user of the verb eavesdrop was the English poet and playwright George Chapman (circa 1560-1634) in the comedy Sir Gyles Goosecappe Knight (London, 1606); Momford and Lord Furnifall are inside the house and are planning to go to the gallery on the outside in order to listen secretly to the conversation between Clarence and Doctor Versey, the physician:

– Momford: Bring hether the key of the gallerie, me thought I heard the Doctor and my friend.
– Lord Furnifall: I did so sure.
– Momford: Peace then a while my Lord
                        We will be bold to evesdroppe.

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