From Middle English spien, aphetic variant of earlier espien (“to espy”), from Old French espier (“to spy”), from Frankish *spehōn (“to spy”), from Proto-Germanic *spehōną (“to see, look”), from Proto-Indo-European *speḱ- (“to look”). Akin to German spähen (“to spy”), Dutch spieden (“to spy”).
The noun displaced native Old English sċēawere (literally “watcher”), which was also the word for "mirror." In this sense, the verb displaced Old English sċēawian, which was also the word for "to watch" and became the Modern English word show.
spy (plural spies)
- A person who secretly watches and examines the actions of other individuals or organizations and gathers information on them (usually to gain an advantage).
- 2013 June 29, “Travels and travails”, in The Economist, volume 407, number 8842, page 55:
- Even without hovering drones, a lurking assassin, a thumping score and a denouement, the real-life story of Edward Snowden, a rogue spy on the run, could be straight out of the cinema. But, as with Hollywood, the subplots and exotic locations may distract from the real message: America’s discomfort and its foes’ glee.
- (intransitive) To act as a spy.
- During the Cold War, Russia and America would each spy on each other for recon.
- (transitive) To spot; to catch sight of.
- I think I can spy that hot guy coming over here.
- (intransitive) To search narrowly; to scrutinize.
- c. 1603–1604 (date written), William Shakespeare, “The Tragedie of Othello, the Moore of Venice”, in Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies […] (First Folio), London: […] Isaac Iaggard, and Ed[ward] Blount, published 1623, OCLC 606515358, [Act III, scene iii], page 324:
- (As I confeſſe it is my Natures plague / To ſpy into Abuſes, and of my iealouſie / Shapes faults that are not)
- (transitive) To explore; to see; to view; inspect and examine secretly, as a country.
- “spy” in The Bokmål Dictionary.
- “spy” in The Nynorsk Dictionary.
From Old Norse spýja, from Proto-Germanic *spīwaną, from Proto-Indo-European *(s)ptyēw- (“to spit, vomit”). Compare Norwegian and Danish spy, Icelandic spýja, English spew, Dutch spuwen, German speien.
|1 Archaic. 2 Dated. See the appendix on Swedish verbs.|