For many years during my service in US Army intelligence I had the bright idea of writing a spy novel. To tell you the truth, probably half the people I worked with had that notion. A few even worked up drafts. But very few finished. And to my knowledge, fewer got published. As a long term student of history, I wanted to paint a historical picture, not just spin a spy yarn. Until recent years, very few Americans knew that, in addition to being the top soldier during the Glorious Cause, George Washington was the nation’s foremost spymaster. But we in Army Intelligence knew about his secret role. So when I decided to move forward on writing my spy novel (s) I decided to blend spy themes with fictional versions of James Bond with the background of the American Revolution. The Yankee Doodle Spies brands the series – tales of men and women who fought the secret war – gathering information, intelligence, to give Washington an edge over the enormously powerful British land and sea forces.
|George Washington was the great case officer|
of his day
Origins of the Term, Spy
Words have meaning. So let’s drill down on the word, Spy – the central word in this series. Just where does it come from and what does it mean? According to one source, the word comes from Old French and other European languages.
|Benjamin Tallmadge coordinated |
The word Spy, as a noun, stems from the mid-13th century and meant "one who spies on another." This originates from Old French word, Espie, meaning a "spy, look-out, or scout."
In Middle English, spy came from the shortening of the Old French word, espie, espying, espier, espy. The Old French itself was of Germanic origin, stemming from an Indo-European root shared by the Latin word specere, which means to behold or to look.
|Old French was connected to Latin|
To Spy, the verb has the same mid-13th century origin and meant to watch stealthily.
This carried over from the verb in Old French, espier, which meant, to "observe, watch closely, spy on, or find out," probably from Frankish spehon or some other Germanic source. The term spehon is seen in Proto-Germanic and also in Old High German and similarly meant "to look out for or scout."
Old English had the verb, spyrian "to make a track, go, pursue; ask about, investigate." The noun connected to the verb was spyrigend "investigator, inquirer."
|Old High German was connected to Frankish and Old French|
The Italian verb, spiare and Spanish espiar also derive from the Germanic from around 1300 and similarly mean "to catch sight of.” The term evolved into the modern German verb, spähen "to spy." The word evolved in Middle Dutch to the word, Spien.
|One of many iterations of the Army|
Special Agent's Badge
Interestingly - as I worked with German counterintelligence during the Cold War and their modern term for spy is Spion and espionage is Spionage. The root of the word and basic sounds are unchanged. But pay attention to some of the other action descriptors in the etymology such as observe, watch closely, find out, look out, ask about, etc.
A Curious 18th Century Use
We can see the term, “to spy”, means learning through observation and of course reporting. Now done clandestinely in time of war you get closer to the more modern definition. But the term spy once had another usage - connected to observing and gathering information in order to report on it. So it is no small leap from this terminology to get at another use for the term “Spy."
|"Spy" used a journal|
For in the 18th century the term “Spy” was used as the name of major periodicals in colonial and post-colonial America. These had no small role in shaping colonial thought during the struggle for independence that preceded the actual war.We shall discuss that in more detail in an upcoming post.