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LISTEN CLOSELY TO EVOLUTION OF ONCE-WET `EAVESDROPPING'

Question: Can "eavesdrop" refer to a positive sort of listening in? I read about eavesdropping on whales to learn how they communicate. Is this a valid use of the word?

Answer: The extension of "eavesdrop on" to mean something closer to "monitor," though not yet a firmly established use, is a reflection of the ever-widening employment of technological means to study or keep track of anything from wildlife to fetal hearts by listening from a distance. Certainly this type of eavesdropping doesn't have the negative, or even criminal, connotations we usually associate with listening secretly by means of mechanical or electronic devices.

"Eavesdrop" has a long history. The first laws regarding eavesdropping were passed at least as long ago as the mid-14th century. Middle English law forbade standing under "wals or windowes . . . to heare news" and deemed this act of "eavesdroppers," as the offenders were called, to be punishable by fine or at least to require guarantees of future good behavior. But the very first laws incorporating the word "eavesdrop" had nothing to do with listening at all.

In Anglo-Saxon England, "eavesdrop" (or "eavesdrip") was the term for water that dripped from the eaves of a building as well as for the space of ground onto which the water dripped. In walled towns such as Canterbury in the southeast of England, where space was at a premium and dwellings were built very close together, the domain of eavesdrop became a legal issue. The law forbade any building to be built closer than 2 feet to another without a permit, which was also known as an eavesdrop, allowing one homeowner's eaves to drip on the property of another. (The ancient Romans had a similar law, as well as one that dealt with water flowing from eaves troughs, or gutters, onto another's land.)

The 14th-century law regarding eavesdroppers assumed that such listeners would have to be standing within the eavesdrop of a building in order to hear inside. Nothing much changed with eavesdropping for nearly six centuries, except that a new verb, "eavesdrop," was adopted (the verb was first recorded in 1606).

In turn-of-the-century Pennsylvania, where eavesdropping was an indictable offense, the offender was still identified as a man or woman crouched outside a wall or window (except in cases where the listener was a husband or someone authorized by him listening to his wife, which was legal). In less than a hundred years we've learned to enlist satellites in space to eavesdrop anywhere on the globe. Now we are also attempting to eavesdrop on distant galaxies - using "eavesdrop," in this case, in its emerging positive sense.

Question: Can you tell me anything about the phrase "the worm turns"?

Answer: The expression "the worm turns" comes from an old proverb that goes "Tread on a worm and it will turn." The exact origin of the proverb is obscure. The earliest example of its appearance in print that we know of is in John Heywood's 1546 book of proverbs: "Tread a woorme on the tayle and it must turn."

The "worm" here and in other proverbs evokes qualities of ineffectuality and passivity. The verb "turn" in this context basically means "to squirm," describing the motion of a worm, but it also suggests the extended sense of "turn" meaning "to change in attitude from submission to opposition." The proverb implies that even the meekest, gentlest soul will turn on you (i.e., fight back) if sufficiently provoked.

The abbreviated phrase "the worm turns" usually suggests that a meek or ineffectual person is finally beginning to show some backbone and self-respect in response to bad treatment. Although now rarely used in everyday speech, this expression has appeared in some form or other in the works of such literary figures as Shakespeare, George Orwell, Willa Cather and Somerset Maugham.