Walking in the street I accidently hear what some people who are standing on the other corner of street say. I don't intend to hear and they don't intend me to hear even though they might don't care if I hear it or not.

What is a word for accidentally hearing something as in the above example? Just to make my question more clear, "overhear" and "eavesdrop" are not what I want because they mean "To intentionally hear something without the speaker's awareness or intent."

American Heritage Dictionary 4th Ed. (En-En):


To hear (speech or someone speaking) without the speaker's awareness or intent.

To hear something without the speaker's awareness or intent.

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    Look up overhear. Over here Oxford says Hear (someone or something) without meaning to... and that is how native speakers use it. Yes it can also mean to hear something without the speaker's knowledge but that's not all it can mean. Commented Jul 8, 2017 at 17:54
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    What @Clare said. “I accidentally overhead” “I couldn’t help but overhear” mean exactly what you describe.
    – Jim
    Commented Jul 8, 2017 at 17:59
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    Yes or even I overheard this guy on the metro; he said blah blah blah. At some point, you are no longer 'accidentally' listening but you are choosing to listen. But probably at first you heard it without a desire to do so. Eavesdrop is different in that it strongly means to listen to someone without their knowledge. Commented Jul 8, 2017 at 18:02
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    @Sasan There is no "intention to listen" in the definition you quoted. I would actually say that is the primary difference between "overhear" and "eavesdrop": "overhear" has no intention from the listener, while "eavesdrop" does.
    – Hellion
    Commented Jul 8, 2017 at 18:10
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    Don't rely on one dictionary only, check with several; Oxford, Merriam-Webster, Cambridge, Longman, and Collins are among the best. The Free Dictionary will include definitions taken from several different dictionaries, if you desperately need to save time. You should also include a link to the source, so users can verify your claim.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jul 8, 2017 at 19:07

2 Answers 2


Cambridge dictionary defines overhear as

to hear what other people are saying without intending to and without their knowledge


Oxford dictionary defines the word as

Hear (someone or something) without meaning to or without the knowledge of the speaker.


Lots of times you "overhear" someone by accident and then it's your choice whether to keep listening intentionally or not to do so. When you begin to intentionally listen you are not really "overhearing" someone or something, rather you're deliberately listening to someone, probably without their knowledge–and that becomes eavesdropping.

You've shown that the American Heritage dictionary does not mention anything about the hearer's intentions but the two dictionaries I cite do so, with Cambridge including the 'accidental part" in the meaning. Two or three other dictionaries–including the Oxford English Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Collins–do not mention the hearer's intention, but this is not as full a definition as the two I've included, and with which other speakers agree in comments.

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    ‘I don’t,’ said Gandalf grimly. ‘It is some time since I last heard the sound of your shears. How long have you been eavesdropping?’ ‘Eavesdropping, sir? I don’t follow you, begging your pardon. There ain’t no eaves at Bag End, and that’s a fact.’ ‘Don’t be a fool! What have you heard, and why did you listen?’ Gandalf’s eyes flashed and his brows stuck out like bristles.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jul 8, 2017 at 18:40
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    The Oxford definition is "without meaning to" OR "without the knowledge of the speaker" - so it's ambivalent. The OED has: "To hear (words spoken, a person speaking, etc.) contrary to the intention or without the knowledge of the speaker", and Chambers has "To hear (a person or remark, etc) without the speaker knowing, either by accident or on purpose". Thus "overhear" is not unequivocally without intent. And in fact, the example given with the Oxford definition is careful to explicitly clarify the intent: "I couldn't help overhearing your conversation".
    – ekhumoro
    Commented Jul 8, 2017 at 19:55
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    @ekhumoro ' "[O]verhear" is not unequivocally without [the] intent [of the overhearer]'. But one of its senses is certainly 'accidentally hear someone's conversation', and that's an acceptable answer here. Most words have more than one sense and require judicious use. And I'd consider the 'without intending to eavesdrop' sense the more common. Commented Jul 8, 2017 at 22:19
  • @EdwinAshworth. But there aren't separate and contrasting senses. There is just one sense, which is ambivalent as to the intent of the hearer. That is why speakers usually qualify it with "couldn't help" or "accidentally": they want to emphasise that they weren't actually eavesdropping (but they could have been).
    – ekhumoro
    Commented Jul 9, 2017 at 0:45
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    @ekhumoro '... accidentally hear someone's conversation' (ODO) and '... hear (speech or someone speaking) without the speaker's awareness or intent.' are both definitions for the way the word is used, and unquestionably display polysemy-with-hyponymy. That means that different senses are involved. Commented Jul 9, 2017 at 12:53

I agree that overhear does not imply that you were intentionally listening, and can work for your situation. However, if you want to stress both your inability not to listen and the fact that the speakers didn't care whether you heard or not, you could use the phrase subjected to. From Merriam-Webster:

to subject (someone or something) to

1 : to cause or force (someone or something) to experience (something harmful, unpleasant, etc.)

This phrase isn't limited to sounds, so you would need to specify what you were subjected to; for instance

Walking down the street I was subjected to the loud argument/obscene language/private conversation of some people on the corner.

Also note that it needs to be subjected to; plain subject to means something slightly different.

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    "To be subjected to something" suggests that one was a victim, an innocent passerby. If I am subjected to verbal abuse, it means the abuse was uncalled for, unnecessary, inexcusable, gratuitous. I really really don't see how overhearing someone mumbling or chatting to somebody can be classified as a form of abuse which to be subjected to strongly hints at.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jul 8, 2017 at 22:29
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    @Mari-LouA It obviously depends on the particular circumstances. If someone is having a quiet conversation about the weather, I wouldn't use this expression; but if someone is having a profanity-laced argument at full-volume on a public street, I would. Have you never been subjected to someone else's TMI phone conversation somewhere like on a subway or in a public toilet or right outside your window, and wondered "how on earth can they have that conversation here, where people can hear and can't get away?"
    – 1006a
    Commented Jul 8, 2017 at 22:46
  • If that was the situation described by the OP, I'd agree. But it's not, the OP listened inadvertently to a conversation. It's quite easy to avoid listening or hearing a private conversation if you're in the middle of a street. Just move on, walk quickly, cross the road, or turn back. It's not like being stuck on a train or bus with a "loudmouth" :)
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jul 8, 2017 at 22:47
  • @Mari-LouA The OP seemed to want something that stressed that the speakers could/should have known that their conversation was public, rather than that they were unaware of being heard ("they might don't care if I hear it or not"); this is one way to get that across.
    – 1006a
    Commented Jul 8, 2017 at 22:49
  • I also disagree that being on a public street necessarily means that this situation can't be a situation where the hearer couldn't help hearing—obviously you wouldn't use "subjected to" for standing and listening to a twenty minute conversation, but you wouldn't use "overhear" for that, either. One can easily be "(briefly) subjected to" something unpleasant—e.g. "I was subjected to some idiots' racist self-congratulation while I waited for the light to change" or "the neighbors subjected me to the details of their sex life again while I was crossing the street."
    – 1006a
    Commented Jul 8, 2017 at 22:58

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