Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Eaves are Dropping

An eave is the over-hanging portion of a typically slanting roof. The roof slants in order to carry water as quickly as possible away from the structure before—water is like that—it will soak in, collect, seep down, and begin the slow process of returning the house to nature. The over-hang, the eave, of course, is there to protect the outer walls of the house. And this almost self-evident architectural innovation has had some interesting legal and linguistic ramifications.

The eave goes way back. I’m told that Greek Doric temples featured an eave, but the Ionic temples did not. The latter collected the water in grooves and spewed it out through the gullets of stone lions; these lions, in turn, are the original of our gargoyles (for more see here). Now with eaves present the water simply drips down to the ground. And the area into which the collected raindrops fall is called—and this is a noun—the eavesdrop. The Latin for it is stillcidium, derived from stilla or drop. And the Romans saw this drippage happening around Etruscan temples. The legal ramifications arose around this disgusted exclamation: “I don’t want your roof dripping on my property.” In Roman times this produced laws preventing owners building structures right up to their property lines. You had to keep back a ways. And in the Anglo Saxon legal canon the limit was 2 feet from the boundary—so that the owner had to suffer his own dripping.

Now to the linguistic aspect. First, our word derives from the Old English yfesdrype, yes, eaves and drop. But the ramification comes from the fact that the area itself, the eavesdrop region on the ground, is rather narrow, shaded by the roof, and very close to the wall. A person quietly standing there, on the eavesdrop, especially close to an open window, ideally further camouflaged from the outside by big bushes put next to the house, could, listening hard, overhear things that he or she might not otherwise hear. And thus we have the transformation of something that once was a noun into a verb. We have Google. And we also google, don’t we? I googled all this using Wikipedia and Online Etymology Dictionary. The illustration—it's best to make things very clear—is courtesy of

Meaningful coincidence? Yesterday I read, in a marvelous old novel, The White Woman, a crucial episode where Marian Halcomb, co-heroine of the novel, spends a couple of hours listening to a conversation, during a downpour, hiding on the eavesdrop and getting very wet and cold. Her resulting illness is a hinge in the plot. And this morning, suddenly, Brigitte looks at me and says: “You know? Eavesdrop? That’s lauschen in German. How did we get the word in English? The eaves dropping? What is all this?” — It’s a Ghulf Genes post, Brigitte. That’s what it is.


  1. Meaningful coincidence, indeed.

    I'd forgotten that scene in the book (although now that you mention it, it's pretty important, isn't it?), but you're exactly right: it's the paradigmatic example of eavesdropping, in both the literal and figurative sense.

    Marian Halcomb is one of the great characters of nineteenth century fiction. Collins apparently got letters from young men who, undeterred by the frequent references to her ugliness, wanted to know how they could contact her -- they wanted to propose marriage to such an intelligent and courageous woman.

  2. Not surprised by Collins' correspondents, Brandon. No sooner introduced early in the book, as ugly, Marian very rapidly emerges (within about four paragraphs) as central, admirable, and indeed lovable.

  3. As usual, you get answers for my endless questions; be these absurd, abstruse, or downright asinine. I sometimes suspect that you actually enjoy digging out and illustrating unusual word origins or linguistic formations, as well as various other odd curiosities. I certainly much enjoy the explications of your unearthings. Thanks very much.

  4. Brigitte: Without your lively interest and curiosity in everything -- nature, science, politics, history, art, philosophy, heaven, hell, Cain and Able (although I've failed you there), black holes, quasars, orchids, turnips, water conservation, geography, and, yes, words -- there wouldn't be a Ghulf Genes. Do not slacken!