“Our English reasons for vaunting our superiority to secrecy and spies are of very modern date.”
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)
I once knew a weaselly fellow who had the habit of looking through other people’s mail and listening under other people’s windows. This was evident because he also had the habit of dropping sly allusions to information he could have acquired in no other way. This was when I was in graduate school and, like most of my fellow students, had my mail sent to the department in order to avoid frequent changes of address. The graduate-student mailboxes were in the graduate student lounge, which this weaselly fellow haunted like a resident specter, and where he rifled through the mail when everyone else was away.
His aim, so far as I could tell, was to make other people uneasy by these small and completely deniable violations of their privacy. I don’t believe he actually steamed open letters, but he was more than happy to read a postcard and take notice of catalogues and the names and addresses on personal correspondence. And, as I said, he merely alluded to what he discovered. If I received a postcard from a friend who had visited the Statue of Liberty, the weaselly fellow would within a day or two mention the Statue of Liberty. It may have been my imagination, but he always seemed to have a gloating expression when he did it.
His gloat seemed to say, “I have intruded upon your private business and there is nothing whatever you can do about it.” Well, what I could do was form the opinion that he was a weasel and a creep.
He was also an eavesdropper of the literal lurk-under-a-window sort. I attended graduate school at Syracuse University, where summer evenings are warm and the houses rented by graduate students have (or at least had) no air conditioning. Thus windows were normally open and front porches were frequently employed. So often did the weaselly fellow allude to the substance of private conversations that I had by an open window or on an open porch, that it was a joke to call out his name when the leaves rustled or a twig snapped.
I believe that such sounds may have been, in fact, the original inspiration for the word eavesdrop. The word certainly refers to snoops and spies who lurked under the eaves of a building with the aim of “overhearing” words not intended for their ears, and their haunt under the eaves was within the drip line of water that would shed from off the roof. Hence the word eavesdrop. I cannot prove it, but nevertheless suggest that the word eavesdrop may at first have referred to the soft rustle and crackling that is made by falling eavesdrops, and likewise by the stealthy movements of an eavesdropping spy.
Here is an early and interesting use of the word from a pamphlet published by John Milton in 1642. In this pamphlet the young Milton is defending some vigorous denunciations we wrote in a prior pamphlet.
“Was it such a dissolute speech, telling of some politicians who were wont to eavesdrop in disguises, to say they were often liable to a night-walking cudgeller, or the emptying of a urinal.”*
I say this quote is interesting because it evokes the world of seventeenth-century eavesdropping with its mention of disguises and exposure to the hazards of mugging and chamber pots. It is easy to picture a muffled figure slipping from shadow to shadow on a crooked street of London before the Great Fire.
The twenty-first century is, however, the golden age of eavesdropping, because digital communication causes all of us to converse on what amount to open front porches on a warm summer evening in Syracuse. An open front porch surrounded by an infinitely capacious hedge of sheltering shrubbery. Hear those leaves rustle? Hear those twigs snap?
“Hey (insert name of weaselly graduate student), is that you?”
* * * * *
This website is a sort of open front porch on which Tom, Richard and I nowadays do most of the talking. Many well-intentioned readers join us on the porch simply to listen, presumably because they are interested in what we have to say, and for these readers we are forever thankful. A few readers break into our monologues with comments, and for these were are more thankful still. But like all virtual front porches, this one is surrounded by an infinitely capacious hedge of sheltering shrubbery, and in that sheltering shrubbery there are lurkers who are also interested in what we say.
But not in a good way. They are eavesdroppers, snoops and spies.
There is more than one reason that the internet has made the twenty-first century the golden age of eavesdropping. One can, of course, “overhear” conversations without risking cudgels, chamber pots, and the scratches that come with hiding among bushes; but one can also travel back in time to eavesdrop on old conversations, and lazy eavesdroppers can use a machine to home in on incriminating and treasonous words.
How envious that muffled and furtive figure from seventeenth-century London would be.
I began to think about these things when I noticed a blip on this website’s traffic meter just the other day. It appeared that a time-travelling eavesdropper was listening to what I wrote last year about the 1896 triple lynching in Bryan. That post still attracts interested readers of good will, but I suspect this blip was caused by the secretive Title IX investigation into what I have written here, or by one of the sinister scoundrels who triggered that gross defamation.
I take the old-fashioned view that I have a God-given right to say whatever I believe ought to be said about the 1896 triple lynching, or about anything else I think worthy of comment. If I abuse this right and say what ought not to be said, that is between me and the God who gave me this right. It is not between me and the snoops that lurk under virtual eaves, or that spy from beneath virtual shrubbery.
In my epigram, Charles Dicken’s notes that traditional English liberties were of very recent date at the time of the French Revolution. England had not long before been a land of “secrecy and spies,” and there was nothing but the Englishmen’s new revulsion against such things to prevent a swift return to the days when muffled figures risked the cudgels of footpads and the contents of chamber pots to dig dirt on their enemies.
It appears that many twenty-first century Americans have lost their revulsion for “secrecy and spies,” and that their renewed appetite for “dirt” came at exactly the time when the new communication technologies tempted free-speakers to throw open their windows and repair to their front porches for semi-private conversations. I’m sure that weaselly student from my old graduate school is in heaven.
And this is why we are now living in the golden age of eavesdropping.
*) John Milton, “An Apology for Smectymnus” (1642)