This is a phrase used in a children’s guessing game called “I Spy.”
Example: “Alright, Sophia, I spy with my little eye something white.”
“Is it the big 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.”
Origin Of ‘I Spy With My Little Eye’
There are various children’s games that you’ve probably heard about before and even played yourself as a kid. For example, who hasn’t played a game of hide and seek in their life, where one or more persons pick a spot to hide in while another person counts to ten and then tries to find everyone; this is a popular pastime that’s enjoyed all around the world.
Then there’s the game “I Spy.” This is the game that the phrase originates from. How do you play? If you’re unfamiliar, don’t worry, it is quite simple: In this game, there are two players. One player is the “spy,” and he chooses an object out of the environment; let’s say he chooses a rug. The second player then has to guess the object that was chosen.
How do they figure it out? Because the spy will give a clue, typically the color of the object or the letter it starts with will be given as a hint. For example, the spy will say: “I spy with my little eye something starting with the letter R.” The second player then starts guessing, trying to figure out what object the spy’s thinking of. They keep guessing until they either do so correctly or they give up, and then it is the other person’s turn. It is a simple game that kids enjoy, for a short while anyways.
So how old is this phrase? It goes back at least to the early 20th century. I have two examples, the first being 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.”
However, the earliest I could find of this phrase in print is 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 a little over 105 years old, at the least.
Here’s an example of this idiom being used in a sentence:
“I spy with my little eye something that begins with the letter D. What do you think it could be?”
“I think it’s the detective up at the top, the one in the brown coat!”