This phrase is used in a children’s guessing game called “I Spy.”
Example: “Alright, Sophia, I spy with my little eye something white.”
“Is it the blanket on the bed?”
“Yep, you got it. Now it’s your turn.”
Note: While playing this game, it is common for this phrase to be shortened simply to “I spy.”
The Origin Of ‘I Spy With My Little Eye’
When you were a kid, you’ve probably played children’s games such as “hide and go seek” and “tag.” You also might have played the game “I Spy,” which is where this phrase originates from. If you don’t know what “I Spy” is or how it is played, then let’s go over the rules:
The game “I Spy” is played with two or more players. One player is the “spy” and their job is to choose an object from the surrounding environment; let’s say he chooses a brown rug. Now the second player has to guess that object. To help them, the spy gives a clue about the object’s color or the letter it starts with. For example, since a brown rug was chosen, he might say: “I spy with my little eye something starting with the letter R.” The second player then examines the environment for relevant objects. They keep guessing until they either get it right or give up, then it’s the other person’s turn.
So that is how the game is played. Now let’s talk about how old the phrase is. It goes back to at least the early 20th century. For example, in the newspaper The Queenslander, 1925, there is a part where the rules of the game are being described:
“Make the children sit round in a ring and tell one of them to think of some object that he can see. When he has thought of something he says, ‘I spy with my little eye a —,’ and then he gives the initial or initials of the thing he has chosen.”
A second, older example comes from the newspaper The North Western Advocate and the Emu Bay Times, 1911:
“There are also other irregularities in regard to the work which I can spy with my little eye, one of them being a peculiar habit of some men coming along and putting themselves on to work unarrested, although there may be at the time other men standing on the wharf waiting to be put on.”
The last quote above is the earliest I could find the phrase in print, so it is at least over 105 years old.
Tip: There is a list with hundreds of phrases on here that you can check out. Where? Well, I spy with my little eye a menu at the top of the page.
Here is an example sentence of this phrase:
“I spy with my little eye something brown. What do you think it could be?”
“I think it’s the detective’s hat in the picture posted on this page!”