I love the word overhear. I often want to communicate a similar concept, but visually - with somebody looking over my shoulder at my computer screen, for example.

"My husband (overheard) me shopping for his birthday present" - except if he used his eyes, not his ears.

"Oversee" obviously means something completely unrelated. So does there exist a word that means what I want?

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    I'd look at things like "spotted", "glimpsed", "caught sight of" etc. – ralph.m Dec 9 '15 at 23:44
  • Eavesdrop; secretly listen. Not exactly what you wanted since it is intentional. – Grizzly Dec 9 '15 at 23:53
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    The husband caught a glimpse, or sight, of her shopping. Funny how the definitions of so many suggestions on this page use these exact words, yet no answer actually suggests using these exact words. – RegDwigнt Dec 10 '15 at 14:04
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    Maybe the reason there's no exact visual equivalent is that there's no exact physical equivalent. If you're close by, you can't stop yourself from hearing something (without clapping your hands over your ears) but observing something is more of an active thing. – Roger Dahl Dec 11 '15 at 20:51

13 Answers 13


I think glimpse is close to the meaning you are looking for:

  • (tr) to catch sight of briefly or momentarily.


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    +1 this is good because it implies it is accidental. The only slight limitation is that glimpse implies it is momentary, whereas you can "overhear" an entire conversation. But I guess if you glimpse and don't look away, it's no longer accidental (unlike overhearing), so you'd need another word anyway (something like "My husband glimpsed me shopping for his birthday present. He tried to act like he hadn't seen anything, but he kept spying to see what it was") – user56reinstatemonica8 Dec 11 '15 at 17:10



"To catch sight of; to perceive with the eyes; to discover, as a distant object partly concealed, or not obvious to notice; to see at a glance; to discern unexpectedly"

Overheard implies not directed at or intended for the hearer. Espy should carry the same implication. Standing behind someone staring at the computer screen is not espying, but opening the door and seeing something on their computer screen is espying.


Based on the context you gave above for the term "overhear", I think that a decent definition for what you are looking for is simply spy. Apart from the obvious James Bond noun, it has a couple of alternative verb definitions, Dictionary.com defines as:

  1. to discover or find out by observation or scrutiny
  2. to observe (a person, place, enemy, etc.) secretively or furtively with hostile intent.
  3. to inspect or examine or to search or look for closely or carefully.
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    overhear is accidental. spy is quite deliberately. – Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen Dec 10 '15 at 11:53
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    @ThorbjørnRavnAndersen thats not quite true. To overhear is to listen without the speaker's knowledge, and isn't necessarily accidental. See TheFreeDictionary's definition of overhear (thefreedictionary.com/overhear). In Alex Ryan's question, it's conceivable that the husband could have been listening furtively, and not necessarily accidentally. – entpnerd Dec 10 '15 at 19:48
  • Using "spy" or "espy" requires care to avoid the common / default connotation of intentional spying, rather than the accidentally-notice sense. – Peter Cordes Dec 13 '15 at 2:31

The verb to oversee actually has this exact meaning; see:

oversee verb -sees -seeing -saw or -seen (transitive)*

  1. to watch secretly or accidentally
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    The verb oversee does not have a normal meaning of the visual equivalent of "overhear". In common usage it means to supervise, manage, or monitor - and only that. The roughly equivalent terms could be "spotted" - or "spied" if it were deliberate. However in most contexts the simple "saw" will be understood to mean the equivalent of "overheard". – Cargill Dec 10 '15 at 1:55
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    Maybe. Excerpt that there are sources that recognize such usage. Another reference. – macraf Dec 10 '15 at 2:24
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    Not going to downvote because you've cited legitimate sources, but I agree with Cargill - this is not common usage and would likely be misunderstood. – Lynn Dec 10 '15 at 2:33
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    Googling "accidentally oversaw" does in fact return results. Even in books. – macraf Dec 10 '15 at 3:02
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    The use of 'oversee' in the sense "To catch sight of, glimpse; to observe secretly, spy on" (OED) is well-established, with example quotes from Fielding in 1735 to the Guardian in 1995. I'm just embarrassed I overlooked the possibility. – JEL Dec 10 '15 at 6:07

I'm afraid I can't think of a single-word equivalent for overhear. Common usage would be to say, "I just happened to see...". This commonly happens when someone glances in your direction and "catches sight of" the object/event you are referring to.

  • Also 'noticed' or 'happened to notice'-- meaning happened to see (if it's implicitly visual information, such as a document) without the intent of specifically looking for it. – user1359 Dec 10 '15 at 14:36

Consider, catch.

I caught her shopping the other day

My husband caught me shopping for his birthday present


a. discover unexpectedly : find

b. become suddenly aware of M-W

  • +1 This is the first word that I thought of, even though it isn't explicitly visual. – Jos Dec 11 '15 at 12:06
  • "Catch" implies that there was some follow-up action though - "My husband caught me shopping for his birthday present" isn't great for situation equivalent to accidental overhearing where he glimpsed the shopping then said and did nothing, you'd expect he, at least, blurted out some comment. "Catch sight of" works, however – user56reinstatemonica8 Dec 11 '15 at 17:06

One might say, "I saw it in the corner of my eye." Or you "saw it from the corner of your eye."

Not a perfect match, but worth mentioning.




I would say "I witnessed", which in my mind means something like "I saw it by accident" or "I saw it happen".


I’m going to say no, there isn’t.

I cannot think of any, and I do not think any of the existing answers provides a good alternative. Sometimes there just isn’t a good word for what you want, and I think this is one of them.

Impossible to prove a negative, of course, but I’m leaving this here for people to vote on if they agree/disagree.


The 'fly-on-the-wall' phrase might work for you:

My husband was the fly on the wall when I was shopping for his birthday present.

For a single word, I don't think anybody has mentioned the venerable slang, 'twig':

twig, v
slang or colloq.
1. trans.To become aware of by seeing; to perceive, discern, catch sight of; to recognize.

["twig, v.4". OED Online. December 2015. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/208051 (accessed December 10, 2015).]

In your example, this might become

My husband twigged what I was looking at when I was shopping for his birthday present.

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    Fly on the wall doesn't sound right in this context. I've tied to work out why, and I think it's because it's an expression used to describe what someone would like to be, e.g. 'I wish I'd been a fly on the wall at that conversation!' I can't think of any situation where you would use it to describe something that is actually happening. Similarly, this definition comes closer to the meaning of twig that I'm familiar with, as an English speaker dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/twig. The key is it's something suddenly worked out, like a puzzle, or something that's not obvious. – Joe Miller Dec 10 '15 at 12:52
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    @JoeMiller - Fly on the wall can definitely be used in real situations, in fact there's a whole genre called "fly-on-the-wall documentaries". The reason (for me) that it doesn't work in the OP's context is that it is deliberate, not accidental. – AndyT Dec 10 '15 at 16:13


somebody looking over my shoulder at my computer screen, for example

The expression would be shoulder surfing.

The practice of spying on the user of a cash-dispensing machine or other electronic device in order to obtain their personal identification number, password, etc.

Example sentences

Bushell believes suggestions that chip and PIN will lead to an increase in shoulder-surfing and street robbery is ridiculous scaremongering.

Provided that these brain signals can be recorded and processed in an accurate and repeatable way, a pass-thought system might provide a quasi two-factor, changeable, authentication method resistant to shoulder-surfing.

Source http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/english/shoulder-surfing


Would "eavesdrop on" work? If you seek literary antecedents, there's Roman playwright Plautus' "Braggart Soldier" (based on an ancient Greek original) where a slave, who's chasing a monkey on the roof, sees something no one wants him to see, thus setting in motion the farce.


I would say simply "watched" or "gazed" would be equivalent words, obviously not carrying the same value as "overheard" but just as representative of the action.

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