What tales these words can tell

Eavesdrop: low-tech spying This word meaning to overhear intentionally has its origins in medieval house construction. Back then, rain gutters and downspouts were unknown. Instead, wide overhangs were used so rain would drip off a safe distance from the walls of a house. This "eavesdrip" became a sheltered eavesdrop where someone could hide clandestinely and listen to conversation within a house.

An eavesdropper was known as "a common nuisance" in the18th century, and eavesdropping was considered a crime. Fortunately, an ancient custom forbade building a house less than two feet from a neighbor's boundary, so that homes were less in peril of a neighbor's eavesdrip or a human eavesdropper.

Gossip: trifling chatter Back in Chaucer's day, this word meant godparent, or sponsor of a child in baptism. The word was spelled "godsibbe," from God and "sib," meaning kin or relative (as in "sibling). Over the years, the meaning was extended to mean close friends as well, according to the Morris Dictionary. Some say that the gatherings of such people before and after a christening became clearinghouses for idle chat, and soon the word for the chatters - gossips - became a word for what they spread.

Grapevine: lightning speed Something "heard through the grapevine" is a rumor. "Grapevine" is shortened from the term "grapevine telegraph." In 1859, a telegraph line was crudely strung in trees between Placerville, Calif., and Virginia City, Nev. In time, the wire - no longer taut - looked like a wild, trailing grapevine.

By the time of the Civil War, any conflicting news or orders received by military units were attributed to the sagging lines. A report by "grapevine telegraph" came to mean a rumor. But according to linguist Robert Hendrickson, "The idea behind the expression is more the speed at which rumors spread."

In other words, fast. SOURCES: The Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, by Robert Hendrickson; The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, by Robert K. Barnhart; Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, by William Morris; 'Why You Say It,' by Webb B. Garrison; 'Word Mysteries and Histories,' by Robert Claiborne; 'Loose Cannons and Red Herrings,' by R. Claiborne; 'Who Put the Butter in Butterfly?' by David Feldman; The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, by C. T. Onions, ed.; 'The Story Behind the Words,' by Morton S. Freeman; 'Horsefeathers,' by Charles Earle Funk; and Dictionary of Word Origins, by Jordan Almond.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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