25 Feb /14


England is a country in which there is a lot of rain, and rain dripping off the house could be a serious matter. Over 1,000 years ago just where rain could drop was regulated by law, preventing arguments with neighbours. Eaves means edge of house and drop refers to water that could fall off the house. The law stated that a landowner was not allowed to build property right at the edge of his land. Otherwise the rain could fall onto the neighbour’s land and damage it.  This would be too close to be acceptable.

This meaning was taken up in English law where eavesdropping becomes a criminal offense. It is very strange to find “eavesdropper” as the only English word in Nottingham Court records in the middle of a report in Latin. Getting so close to the house – under the eaves – could be punished. It was only in the 1600s that the idea of listening in to a conversation was taken up, without reference to the legal situation of a house. Even so it was still regarded as something that was not proper.  This is clear from the reference in Sir Gyles Goosecappe  by  George Chapman (who was a serious competitor to Shakespeare as a playwright) when Lord Momford suggests “We will be bold to eavesdrop”.

Nowadays the negative touch remains.  Eavesdropping means listening to conversations without consent. In some developing countries it is still possible to overhear telephone calls via a party line. More advanced countries just tap the lines – with or without a court order. So eavesdropping has retained its original meaning – getting too close to your neighbours in a more or less illegal way.

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