This phrase is used in a children’s guessing game called “I Spy.”
“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 don’t worry, it is simple:
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 what object was chosen. To help them, the spy gives a clue about the object’s color or the letter it starts with. For example, since he chose a brown rug, 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 get it right or give up, then it’s the other person’s turn.
So that is how you play the game. Now let’s talk about how old the phrase is. It goes back to the early 20th century. I have two examples of it appearing in print during this time. The first example is from a newspaper called The Queenslander, 1925, where the rules of the game are 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.”
The second example is also the earliest that I could find the phrase in print. It 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.”
So this phrase is at least over 105 years old.
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 above.”