Today's The Guardian quick crossword has "espied" as the answer to 16 down, clued as "spotted". Having never really seen this word used before, I'm curious as to how it differs from the word "spied".

"Spy" has one meaning (to infiltrate the enemy to gather information) which, as far as I can tell, "espy" lacks. However, the other meaning, to spot, seems to be shared between the two.

Is there a situation where it's more correct to use "espy" than "spy"? Or has "espy" been relegated to the realms of archaic English?

  • 1
    espy will never be fully relegated to archaic English – not as long as crossword puzzles stick around. Related Wikipedia article about words like this one. (Now, if you'll pardon moi, I need to go get some lotion for my sword and woodwind – that is, some aloe for my epee and oboe.)
    – J.R.
    Aug 25 '17 at 14:07
  • LDOCE marks both words as literary in that sense.
    – user3395
    Aug 25 '17 at 14:10

As a well educated native English speaker, I just ran into the word for the first time and was sure it was a typo.

However, I found the word in The New Yorker, so the odds of me being the first to find an error of this kind seemed exceedingly unlikely.

Irritatingly, it seems usable as a perfect synonym for 'spy', in one of spy's commonly used definitions. From what I can tell, there is effectively no difference, other than a mild pretentiousness at using such an obscure word. I detect no useful nuance, except for perhaps a more limited set of definitions--so maybe, arguably, a bit more precision and less ambiguity?

I'm a voracious reader and 28 years old. If I've ever seen this word, it was probably mistaken as a typo in the past, and/or completely forgotten because it was so rare.

I hope that helps.


Espy is an English word and I agree it is rarely seen.

These words, I think, are pretty much interchangeable in the context of "catching a glimpse of" something.

However, "to espy" is more suited for casual "observations,"

like: I espy the priest around the corner.

While "spy" often suggests gathering intelligence about a subject.

like: I was ordered to spy on the missile launch site and report any unusual movement.

If I were writing a paper, I would consider the diction in the context of casually "glimpsing" something or monitoring somebody.


I checked the dictionary listings at onelook.com. Both words come from the French "espier" (to watch) and have been used in English since the 13th century. According to the American Heritage Dictionary: In the sense of "to glimpse," the difference in usage is that "spy" means "to see"; whereas "espy" means more "to discern"—that is, to see something obscure, something a casual observer would likely miss. This nice distinction allows the writer to make this differentiation economically . . . rather than resort to such words as "perspicacity" (the ability to "see through" things or situations).


Not a native speaker but one who has spoken English since early childhood, I’ve read and used this word many times in the second sense given in American Heritage Dictionary. To me the difference between the verbs “spy” and “espy” was always clear.


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