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.”
The Origin Of ‘I Spy With My Little Eye’
You’ve been a kid before, so there is a good chance that you’ve played some of the classic children’s games while growing up. Games such as “hide and go seek” or “tag.” These are enjoyed by kids around the world.
However, we’re here to talk about the game “I Spy” because that is where the phrase originates from. So… what is “I Spy” and how is it played? If you’re unfamiliar, don’t worry, it is quite simple: “I Spy” is a game that’s typically played by two players. One player is the “spy” and his job is to choose an object out of the environment; let’s say he chooses a brown rug. The second player then has to guess what object was chosen.
The spy will give a clue to the other player to help them figure it out. Usually this clue is either the color of the object or the letter it starts with. For example, the spy will say: “I spy with my little eye something starting with the letter R.” The second player will then start to guess, examining the environment for relevant objects. They keep guessing until they guess correctly or give up, and then it’s the other person’s turn.
So that’s 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, 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 this phrase 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.
Tip: Remember, there’s a list with hundreds of phrases on here that you can check out. You can learn the meaning of each expressions and their origin. To access the list, simply choose one of the letters from the menu at the top.
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?”
“It’s the detective up at the top, the one in the brown coat!”