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Eavesdrop, alert, alarm, spitting image

Created date

April 6th, 2016

Eavesdrop

In the Middle Ages, houses typically were made of mud, clay, or some other earthen material. Their roofs were either thatched or shingled and equipped, not with gutters but eaves that extended a foot or so from the building. These eaves dripped rainwater from the roof, keeping the moisture away from the walls and foundation. 

To “eavesdrop” was to stand outside where the water dropped from the eaves—a perfect place to listen in on what was happening in the house. Today, the term generally refers to the act of snooping or listening in on a conversation that you’re not part of.

“I was taught that eavesdropping is impolite, if not treacherous.”

Alert

Despite its apparently Germanic sound, “alert” actually comes from a pair of Italian words. To break it down, we’ll start with the last three letters “ert.” In Italian, erta means “watchtower.” And the first two letters, “al,” come from the phrase all’erta, which means “to be on watch.” The English word “alert” is a shortened version of this.

“In the morning, a cup of coffee makes me more alert.”

Alarm

The word “alarm” comes from the Italian phrase all’arme, which means “to arms.” If a sentry spotted an enemy, he would shout the latter to rouse his comrades. Like “alert,” “alarm” is a shortened version of its Italian predecessor.

“On spotting the approaching enemy, the fort’s sentry sounded the alarm.”

Spitting image

When we say that someone is “the spitting image” of another person, we mean to say that they look just like him or her. The phrase stems from a similar saying popular in the 1600s: “as if spit from his/her mouth.” In time, we shortened the euphemism and added the word “image” for clarification. 

“He is the spitting image of his mother.”

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