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The meaning and origin of the expression: I spy with my little eye

I spy with my little eye

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'I spy with my little eye'?

'I spy with my little eye' is a rhyme used in the children's guessing game to indicate what it is that is being looked at.

What's the origin of the phrase 'I spy with my little eye'?

The game I Spy originated in Victorian England. It remains a common pastime played by children - albeit often initiated by adults to occupy bored children on car journeys and the like. One person secretly chooses an object that they can 'spy with his/her little eye' and the others take turns to guess what it is.

The first mention of 'I spy, with my little eye' that I know of in print is in The Manchester Times, January 1889, which gives an explanation of the rules:

After the lantern we had games of various kinds. One was called I "I Spy." To play it all the children sit round the room. One of the players chooses some object, wbich he mnst actually see, and then says, "I spy, with my little eye, something beginning with" P, or whatever the first letter happens to be.

I spy with my little eyeThe game spawned a highly successful series of I-SPY spotter's guide books made for British children. These were very popular in the 1950s and 1960s.

The guessing game was preceded by another children's game called I Spy (or Hy Spy). This was a variant of what is now called Hide and Seek and was known in the UK from the 18th century. John Brand refers to it in his History and antiquities of the town and county of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1789:

"'I spye', is the usual exclamation at a childish game called 'Hie, spy, hie'."

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

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