Definition of spy in English:

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Pronunciation: /spī/

noun (plural spies)

1A person who secretly collects and reports information on the activities, movements, and plans of an enemy or competitor.
Example sentences
  • They served as clerks and couriers, telephone and telegraph operators, code and cipher analysts, and spies behind enemy lines in Europe.
  • You know with skills like that you might be better employed as a spy, a CIA operative or something, instead of being a therapist.
  • Elizabeth I's ministers had to employ spies and even use torture to gain information about threats to her life.
secret agent, intelligence agent, double agent, undercover agent, counterspy, mole, sleeper, plant, scout
informal snooper
archaic intelligencer
1.1A person who keeps watch on others secretly: [as modifier]: a spy camera
More example sentences
  • The school's two rabbits Fern and Hill are new additions this year, and children have been watching a spy camera set up in a birdhouse they built.
  • A hi-tech Peeping Tom who set up a secret spy camera to film a younger female friend in the nude was caught after she spotted the lens, a court heard.
  • Did the spy cameras capture the action in the showers?

verb (spies, spied, spying)

[no object]
1Work for a government or other organization by secretly collecting information about enemies or competitors: he agreed to spy for the West
More example sentences
  • The Army has charged him with five offenses: sedition, aiding the enemy, spying, espionage and failure to obey a general order.
  • If they are spying for a commercial competitor, the situation is different.
  • The charges against them have been dropped from spying to ‘illegal information collection’, although the new charge still carries a possible jail sentence.
be a spy, gather intelligence, work for the secret service
informal snoop
espionage, intelligence gathering, surveillance, infiltration, undercover work, cloak-and-dagger activities
1.1 (spy on) Observe (someone) furtively: the couple were spied on by reporters
More example sentences
  • He often spied on her, watching from the shadows, observing her every gesture.
  • A reporter has been arrested outside the home of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie for spying on the star couple with binoculars..
  • To pass the time, he spies on his neighbours, watching the real-life soap opera in the building across from his.
observe furtively, keep under surveillance/observation, surveil, watch, keep a watch on, keep an eye on
1.2 [with object] Discern or make out, especially by careful observation: he could spy a figure in the distance
More example sentences
  • A year or two later, I happened to be visiting the cathedral in Derry, and spied a figure sitting quietly in prayer.
  • As he turns, he spies a dark figure entering the terrace from one of the other rooms, possibly the nursery, carrying a small bundle.
  • Walking up the aisle, he spies a familiar little figure sitting in the final row of seats near the entrance.
notice, observe, see, spot, sight, catch sight of, glimpse, make out, discern, detect
informal clap/lay/set eyes on
literary espy, behold, descry
1.3 [with object] (spy something out) Collect information about something to use in deciding how to act: he would go and spy out the land
More example sentences
  • ‘We could sneak over and spy it out while he's not there,’ Melanie suggested.
  • Sherwin, prosecuting, said the two thieves pretended to be poachers as they spied out the land for future thefts.
  • Wilson had repeatedly sent his younger accomplice into the victim's shop to spy out the land before launching his raid.



Pronunciation: /ˈspīiNG/
Example sentences
  • He reportedly received more than $600,000 in cash and diamonds in payment for his years of spying - virtually all of which he is believed to have given away.
  • She went behind enemy lines to treat civilians who were caught up in this madness, and also probably, some people say, did some spying while she was there.
  • I'm certain that much of the real spying is never caught because it is conducted by what seem to be ordinary citizens.


Middle English: shortening of Old French espie 'espying', espier 'espy', of Germanic origin, from an Indo-European root shared by Latin specere 'behold, look'.

  • species from Late Middle English:

    The connection may not be immediately obvious, but species is based on Latin specere ‘to look’. The Latin root is reflected in some of the early uses of the word, such as ‘the outward look or appearance of something’, or ‘an image or reflection’. Over time this idea of the visible form of something developed into the more general notion of a thing's ‘type’ or ‘kind’. See also female. Other English words based on Latin specere or the related verb spectare include special (Middle English); spectator (late 16th century); spectre (early 17th century) (literally ‘an appearance’); specimen (early 17th century); and spy (Middle English). Another is spectacle (ME in the sense ‘a show’)a spectacle, originally used in the singular, was a term for a device to assist eyesight as far back as the 15th century. In one of his sermons written in 1628, the poet and preacher John Donne thanked the man ‘that assists me with a Spectacle when my sight grows old’.

Words that rhyme with spy

ally, Altai, apply, assai, awry, ay, aye, Baha'i, belie, bi, Bligh, buy, by, bye, bye-bye, chi, Chiangmai, Ciskei, comply, cry, Cy, Dai, defy, deny, Di, die, do-or-die, dry, Dubai, dye, espy, eye, fie, fly, forbye, fry, Frye, goodbye (US goodby), guy, hereby, hi, hie, high, I, imply, I-spy, July, kai, lie, lye, Mackay, misapply, my, nearby, nigh, Nye, outfly, passer-by, phi, pi, pie, ply, pry, psi, Qinghai, rai, rely, rocaille, rye, scry, serai, shanghai, shy, sigh, sky, Skye, sky-high, sly, spin-dry, spry, sty, Sukhotai, supply, Tai, Thai, thereby, thigh, thy, tie, Transkei, try, tumble-dry, underlie, Versailles, Vi, vie, whereby, why, wry, Wye, xi, Xingtai, Yantai

For editors and proofreaders

Syllabification: spy

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