Word Odyssey: Peeping Tom and Other Creeps

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Today I’m going to get creepy. There are many words for creepy guys, probably for good reason. One of the all-time favorites is Peeping Tom. It’s a great story.

Long ago in 11th century England, the Earl of Mercia laid oppressive taxes on his subjects. Naturally, they complained. He did nothing. At least not until his wife got involved. Her name was Lady Godiva. In Old English, it was pronounced “Godgifu”, meaning God’s gift. And what a gift she was. Lady Godiva begged her husband to lift the load on the poor people of Coventry. He refused to listen, but he did finally tell her that he’d lower the taxes if she rode naked through town. The Earl thought that would shut her up, but to his surprise, his wife took him up on it. Before her famous ride, Lady Godiva took this precaution. She issued a proclamation that all the townspeople must remain inside with their windows shut. As a second precaution, Lady Godiva’s beautiful long hair hid all of her more delicate charms. As the story goes, one local miscreant, a tailor named Tom, bored a hole in his window so that he could ogle Lady Godiva as she passed by. When she did, Tom peeped—and was instantly struck blind. And in the end, the Earl kept his word and lowered taxes on the people.

How much of this story is true, no one knows for sure. But this is known. When William the Conqueror had his tax assessors put together the Domesday book listing all of England’s property owners and what they owned, Lady Godiva was listed as a major landholder, and, in fact, was the only woman in the book.

Anyway, Peeping Tom the Tailor went down in history as the world’s most famous voyeur. Voyeur sounds more civilized than Peeping Tom, which is often the way it is with words from French. They add a touch of sophistication that English lacks, so even a creep like a voyeur doesn’t sound so bad. But still, a voyeur is a creep.

And creep is a good word for that kind of guy. Its origin is kind of self-explanatory. Creepy crawly things can kind of creep you out. They sneak up surreptitiously, and when you spot them, give you that moment of fright. In fact, a well-known reptile gives us another word for a creepy guy: a snake.

The scientific term for someone who secretly watches another is scopohiliac. The “scope” is for the viewing part, and the “philia” is from classical Greek for “lover of”, so a scopophiliac loves to scope. You might say he likes to, you know, ogle, which is to lewdly stare at a girl, but usually not all that subtly. Ogle goes back to a German word for eye, as in peepers.

The French have a special word for a particular kind of creepy guy. Apparently there are some men who, in crowds of strangers—like at a bar or in a subway—habitually rub their crotches against womens’ rear ends. The French call that special brand of creep a frotteur, which sounds almost civilized even though it’s debauched.

In contrast, the word lecher, to describe a lascivious man, just sounds kind of sick. Lecher is also from Old French, which got it from German meaning to lick. That seems entirely appropriate—a sick licker. And of course, there is just the plain old everyday pervert, which first appeared in English in an early translation of the Bible as a verb to describe straying from proper religious beliefs.

Okay you perverts out there, you know who you are. Keep those peepers to yourself, at least until next week’s Word Odyssey column.

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