Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

I’m a writer, so I love to eavesdrop. In fact, I encourage my creative writing students to listen to conversations unobtrusively and often.

But I do wonder what listening to someone else’s discussion has to do with an eave (the edge of a roof that overhangs the side of a building) dropping. So, as a writer/researcher, I look up the origins of the word.


“The Proposal” by Knut Ekwall.

The term “eavesdropping” originated from Anglo-Saxon laws in the early 17th century to prevent building homes too close to the border of another neighbor’s land, in case the rain running off the roof, the yfesdrype or “eaves drip,” messed up a neighbor’s property.

Soon, a person who stood within range of the dripping eaves – so close that he or she could listen to a neighbor’s private discussion – was called an Eavesdripper, which turned to “Eavesdropper.”

The word’s meaning grew;  soon, even those who listened behind a door, or by a window, were called Eavesdroppers.

And now, we contemporary eavesdroppers just sit in a café or coffee shop and listen in to the conversations at the next table.

Which is how I hear the amazing story of a husband who impresses his wife at the airport. Fraudulently.

Please, join me here while I eavesdrop….

Théodore Jacques Ralli, Eavesdropping 1880.

Théodore Jacques Ralli, Eavesdropping 1880.

As I sip my iced green tea, waiting for a friend to join me at a local café early in the morning, I can’t help but hear the group of five men at the table next to me telling stories, laughing at each other and themselves.

The loudest man of the group, gray-bearded and rotund, states, “I was at the airport last night picking up my wife.”

Hmm, I wonder in my curious writer’s head. Where had she traveled? Why did he not go with her?

“A group of other people were waiting also at the international terminal, because the passengers had to go through customs first, of course,” the man continues.

Aha. The wife had flown overseas. Work related? Was she a businesswoman? A spy? Or just traveling to visit a grown child who now lives in London, or Zurich, or Berlin? (Yes, this is how a writer finds her fiction.)

“I was perturbed to see a number of men holding flowers to give their returning loved ones.”

I quickly glance over at the speaking man’s face. He doesn’t look perturbed. The group of five friends begin to chuckle. They seem to understand where this conversation is leading. I do not.

“Cripes,” the bearded husband declares. “I never thought of flowers.”

By Nicolaes, Museum Apsley, Dutch 1634.

By Nicolaes, Museum Apsley, Dutch 1634.

One of the man’s friends says, “You cad.”

“Oh, no. I took care of the matter,” the husband boasts. “I went up to one of the  waiting men – a thin, toothy, smiling guy – and offered him $20 for his bunch of flowers.”

WHAT? I would not have guessed this. The table next to me is silent except for the guffaws of the husband.

“The man gladly handed me his flowers for my money, and when my wife came out of customs 10 minutes later, she gave me a grateful smile for my thoughtfulness.”

I don’t hear the reaction of the table – my friend joins me just then. But  I’ve just gotten an idea of what the least desirable minor character in my next book will do.

Eavesdropping – a writer’s indispensable device.

103 thoughts on “EavesDRIPPING

    • I guess that’s why we need to eavesdrop often – it may take a dozen ‘boring’ conversations to hit a doozy. Today at the bakery I overheard a woman say to a friend, “My husband’s sick at home, so I need a muffin, a croissant, AND a sticky bun to keep me sane.” 🙂

    • Well, I just finished reading Richard Russo’s Nobody’s Fool and then his Everybody’s Fool. I’m thinking he may want to take the title Surrounded by Fools for his next book. :-0
      Looking forward to eavesdropping with you in a month!!

    • Ah yes, “What If” is a great prompt. What if that man’s wife found out he’d ‘filched’ the flowers for 20 bucks at the last minute? We could write a story of how she’d react. And if three of us wrote that story, we’d probably have three very different reactions. Fun, huh?

  1. So, what if – by chance – the husband bought flowers from a guy who was considering being unfaithful to his own wife. And by having someone offer to buy his flowers from him, he took that as an omen to leave his mistress that would be stepping off that same plane. Maybe he took that $20, bought a single stem rose and box of chocolates, and returned home to his own loving wife?

    Convoluted? Yes. But, such is the mind of fiction authors, eh? 😉 Brilliant, as always, Pam! I love etymology and I love to “eavesdrip” too 🙂

  2. Fun post, Pam. I love eavesdropping. It sounds like you didn’t have any trouble hearing this braggart though. Great material for a story! 🙂

    I think 17th and 18th century ideas of privacy were very different from modern Western ideas. Some of the court records I read, especially in divorce cases–wild stuff. 🙂

    • Umm, those court records sound quite enticing. Maybe you should share some in your blog sometime. Now, I’m trying to come up with a story of why you read divorce court hearings from the 18th century. I think I can come up with some fun stories – which involve time travel. :-0 🙂 ❤

  3. Pam, this is a terrific post. I’m chuckling away at your eavesdropping story – a real classic! What a cad indeed but she was never to know and as you say perfect for a character in a story. I tend to listen in, by accident of course, whilst out and about and it is a wonder what people will discuss as if they are totally alone and can’t be overheard. Thank you also for researching where the term comes from, very interesting and I now have visions of all these finely dressed women coming back indoors with wet raindrops over their dresses!

    • ‘You gotta do what you gotta do,” and if that meant standing in the rain to overhear what was REALLY going on at your neighbor’s house, I guess that’s what you did back in the 1800s. I’m not a gossiper and I dislike hearing people argue or get nasty with each other. But then again. I suppose writing and eavesdropping is a form of both of these things.

  4. Now I have a different perspective. Was he truly a cad or your typical thoughtless male? (It would never occur to my husband to come to pick me up with flowers and he’s not a cad.) Seizing the situation he overspends to make it all right. The other guy made a tidy profit which allowed him to take his wife to a very nice burger joint. All is well in the world.

    • Smiling at your nice attempts at justification for the husband. I definitely don’t think he was a cad for not bringing flowers. But, it did sound like he was BRAGGING about his deceit to his friends the next day. Then again, if he made his wife happy, maybe all’s well that ends well. 🙂

    • Bet it won’t take long, Donna. Just standing in line at your local Starbucks or burger place can lead you to listening in on some fascinating dialogue-perfect-for-a-story. Just learn to keep a poker face as you take it all in. 🙂

  5. You might be interested in two of Kate Shrewsday’s posts:

    Henry VIII could not be everywhere, but history records he liked to know what was going on. And he was not subtle about letting his subjects know that the head of the English church’s ears were everywhere, all-hearing, all perceiving.

    In the great hall at his great palace of Hampton Court, a rail travels around the top of the wall. And leaning over the rail are carved figures, for all the world like listeners to the conversations down below.

    And their name? They are known as Eaves Droppers.

    The eaves of a house are the closest one can come before one steps inside the house. They are the perfect location for someone who should not really be there at all, to hear things to their advantage.

    And this was such an accepted truth that Anglo-Saxon law punished those who stood in the eavesdrop with a fine.

    To read more:

  6. That’s great!!
    1. Great idea for finding new stories
    2. And a creative way to surprise his wife. At least he was thoughtful enough to think she needed flowers! Then when THAT wife asks where her flowers are, the husband can say, “Well you see that guy over there? Those were your flowers, but he bought them from me for HIS wife and now I can spend ANOTHER $20 on you!” WIN/WIN! 😀

  7. Art imitates life imitates art imitates life . . . it all depends on where you put the punctuation.

    Thank you for being an excellent writer-teacher-writer-teacher-writer.( I could go on with this too.) I learn a new-ish fact today and see through application how a story evolves. Wild stuff, teach!

    • Ohhh, I appreciate you viewing my posts as a learning-teaching-learning moment. Thank YOU. Funny thing is, that as I begin a post (never quite sure where it’s going to lead), I let my words lead me, and voila – they teach me a thing or two. I’m so glad we’re both here for the lesson. 🙂

    • Like you, Andrea, I’d had no idea why those of us who happened to ‘overhear’ conversations are called ‘eavesdroppers.’ But I do enjoy learning the origin of words. Thanks for enjoying my ‘eavesdripping’ vignette. xo

  8. Maeve Binchy who was such a ‘teacher’ to us here in Ireland used to tell of her endless hours eavesdropping.
    Must say, if I’d been that guys wife and known the background to the flowers, I’d have turned on my heels and taken the next plane out of the place. Thing is she’ll never know ~ unless, of course, she’s into blogging on WP!!

    • I’m a huge fan of Maeve Binchy books. I remember when I read my first one – many years ago – and scoffed the first few chapters, thinking the tale was slow and a bit boring. But suddenly, I realized that the characters in a Binchy book become REAL people who crawl under your skin, and you suddenly think like them, laugh like them, and totally understand their dilemmas and decisions. So yes, it makes lots of sense that Binchy did a lot of eavesdropping to understand the ‘human element’ so well.

  9. Two lessons in one. The origin of a word and a man’s imagination. 😀 😀 I’m being as nice as I can. Delightful post, Joanne.
    I must try eavesdropping. Why am I always so wrapped in my myself? Shouldn’t I listen to humanity’s woes too?. 😀 😀 😀

  10. Hmm to eavesdrop not. Great story and so cute too. I will admit to eavesdropping in the grocery store all the time but the talk is about food and how much to buy and/or “we don’t need anymore of that.” And so on. 🙂

    • Grocery store eavesdropping can be a bit blasé, for sure. However, I once did hear a couple argue for long minutes whether to buy an expensive bottle of cabernet, or the less pricey Chianti. From there, they went on to quibble about who made more money. Ugh, I left the scene to buy ice cream.
      However, I did go home and write a bit of a story about them.
      It didn’t end up happy for either of them. :-0

  11. Hello! I love finding out the origins of words or phrases, generally we use them without giving a second thought to the original source/meaning. I had never thought to question “easvesdropping”, so thank you! And a great little easvesdrop you had there 🙂

    • I can’t tell you how happy I am to see your smiling face…and words… back here at Roughwighting. I understand your need to take a break (look at Mike Allegra! I’m ready to stalk him back to the blogging world). 🙂 Anyway, your returning blog post was brilliant…

      • I actually posted that post a couple of months ago, and then disappeared again! I’m going to make a conscious effort to visit blogland at least once a week, and post at least once a week, I love it when I’m in the blogzone and I want to be there again! I didn’t realise Mike hadn’t posted for a while, yes bring him back (tell him I’m back, that should do it 😉 )

        • Ha ha. I already chastised Mike on his FB page. If that doesn’t do it, I’ll bring out the ‘big guns’ and tell him you’re back in blogzone and waiting impatiently for him. 🙂

  12. Indeed. I don’t carry a notebook (as writers are instructed to do) but the best ideas come from chance conversations (overheard or not) or observation of otherwise ordinary events and applying a ‘what if’ thought to them. Love the images.

  13. I often eat out alone since my husband passed away and I always take a note pad to write down the interesting things I hear or see. Eavesdropping is a wonderful way for writers to discover characters. Since I don’t know the people around me, I don’t feel I am infringeing on their privacy. I can’t use their names.

    • What a smart way to enjoy a dinner alone, Glenda. I usually bring a book with me if I dine by myself, but a notepad is a much better idea. I always include café and restaurant conversations with my main characters in my books, so listening at ‘real’ restaurants and cafes to help me write good dialogue, is important.

  14. I love eavesdropping, too! Sometimes I get a character sketch, but most often it’s a phrase or an idea that sticks in my mind. People are fascinating! But I wonder if non-writers feel the same interest in the conversations of perfect strangers?

    • I wonder, Ann. I don’t think so. I think writers have a larger empathy for ‘strangers,’ listen in to their problems and complications, and then ‘use’ those for their own characters. I agree with you — people are fascinating!

  15. I love ears dropping on people that think nobody can understand them because they speak a different language. I often pretend I don’t understand but once in a while I will say something in German.

  16. Thanks Pam for doing the research and sharing with us. I love finding out where words/phrases originated, and how they’ve evolved since first use. I too adore eavesdropping, but am often far too obvious – laughing at a joke/aside I wasn’t supposed to be included in! What a creepy thing to do Mr no flowers but loadsa dosh man. As a writer, do you think coffee shop time should be tax deductable because really, where else would we get our ideas from 😉 Love and hugs, Harula xxx

    • You have brought up two very important points: (1) yes, we eavesdroppers must keep a ‘poker’ face while listening in to another’s conversation. Otherwise, we’ll get caught, laughing uproariously while sitting at a table all alone, with our ear cocked toward the people sitting at the table next to us. (2) Absolutely we should be able to write off our time writing at a café or coffee shop – totally tax deductible. (Um, but don’t quote me on that….)

  17. The best way to get ideas by far! On the bus is a good place to eavesdrip!! Love how you found out the origin of the word. I can’t help but wonder how the loved one who didn’t get the flowers felt. Did he tell her or him he just sold his welcome gift or did he perhaps use the money to take them out for a quick meal? Maybe he used the last of his cash to buy those flowers and they really needed the money. The ideas are endless.

  18. Well, I do wonder about the origins of many words but had never been curious about eavesdropping before. Thanks for sharing the history behind the term. I do love to eavesdrop in public places — it’s right up there with people-watching as a fun way to pass the time waiting. Especially intriguing are cell phone conversations — I only get to hear half of the conversation and have to guess at what’s being said on the other end. 🙂

    • One way to get back at the annoying people who talk too loudly while conversing on a cell phone is to LISTEN IN and make up a story about the other side of the conversation. And, make the loudmouth talking so clearly that everyone can hear in the restaurant/coffee shop/dentist office, etc, the ‘bad guy’ in the story. 🙂 🙂

  19. Oh this is brilliant. One i did not know the origin of the word. Two I love eavesdropping. My favorite spot is when I am running or cycling on the path system in the city. Because I am sloth like slow, I can hear at least two sentences of each groups conversations. I love trying to weave them together into one single story. This distracts me from the fact that I am my gasping sounds as if I may be taking my last breath.
    As to your next character what a cad. Especially to tell his buddies. I think he will be quite an addition to your next story.

    • You’ve just given me a great idea for a story, Sue. Listen in to several different conversations (your scenario of riding a bike and getting snippets from each person who passes you – or who you pass [I’m sure that happens every once in a while too!] is perfect) and weave those convergent discussions into one story. Now, that’s what I call creative writing!

  20. I never knew where this word came from Pam – this is so interesting! I like the airport story and the fact that this personality type is great for a character in a book. If the guy will do that you can then think of 100 other sneaky little tricks he’s got up his sleeve! 😀

  21. During the height of tourist season here in the south of France, one never knows what language will be overheard from the next table. Tourists speaking English are sure that nobody can understand them and over time one picks up a few words of other languages which can come in handy as one never knows what characters will stumble through the pages of our books… 😀

  22. I’ll look for the last minute flowers in your scene, Pam. I don’t tend to eavesdrop, but perhaps I should start. What a great way to collect character details! Thanks for the research too. Interesting origin of “eavesdropper.”

    • The ‘last minute flowers’ are definitely going in my next book, As Lovely as a Lie. Clues: the pilot and father of the high school son is more than what he seems….and less.
      I’m amazed at some of the things I hear while eavesdropping. I’ve talked to waiters and waitresses about this – just by virtue of their job, they overhear some quite fascinating discussions. :-0

    • Thank you, Cynthia! I think when overhearing conversations, sometimes we lean over TOO close to the next table/person talking because we do wonder – what in the world is he/she going to say next!!! 🙂

  23. Haha….well, I never would have thought that’s where ‘eavesdropper’ came from. It’s amazing how words evolve. Thanks for the word education! 🙂

    Buying another woman’s flowers….shame on him…and even bigger shame on the one who sold them to him. Sounds just like the kind of thing my ex would have done….which is why he’s an ex!!! 😀

    Yes, eavesdropping can create the most amazing stories! I used to have a file where I made notes of overheard conversations or peculiar and amusing people I met. But I haven’t kept it up, I really should get back to that, it’s a perfect writing tool! 🙂

  24. A fun read, and I love the images you’ve used. Eavesdropping is obviously well-used as a writer’s tool and I think a good few story plots have developed from what someone ‘overheard’ whilst eavesdropping!

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