Peeping Tom, a

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Meaning of Idiom 'Peeping Tom'

A peeping Tom is a man who secretly watches others, especially through windows, usually related to sexual gratification; a (sexual) voyeur. 1,2


A peeping Tom is virtually always a man who watches women undress through windows. However, any male who secretly watches women might be labeled a peeping Tom.


"My neighbor said I should keep all the curtains closed. There's a peeping Tom in the neighborhood."

"Everybody thinks Mark is a peeping Tom but he's just out sketching the scenery, not spying on people!"

"The police arrested a guy I know for being a peeping Tom. Now he's trying to convince them he's a burglar!


Peeping Tom is said to originate from a tale about Lady Godiva (Godgifu in Old English), the wife of Leofric, Earl of Mercia during the eleventh century. According to the story, Godiva was upset about the taxes levied on the poor and wanted her husband to reduce them. To this end, she created a spectacle by riding a horse naked through the streets of Coventry.

Most of the townspeople averted their eyes and refused to look at her, but one fellow named Tom, a tailor, just couldn't resist taking a peak, thus becoming the first Peeping Tom. He was struck blind, if not dead, for this act.

In truth, the stories about Tom were not inserted into the tale until centuries later. The earliest published evidence is from 1796. It is possible that other folklore connected to Lady Godiva was combined with the story of her ride. Whether or not Lady Godiva ever had a peeper, it seems clear that this folklore is the origin of the modern idiom. 1,2,3

1. Ammer, Christine. American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.
2. Goodbrand, Allan. Know Your Onions: a Light-Hearted Look at Popular Idioms and Sayings. Book Guild Publishing, 2015.
3. Wikipedia contributors. "Lady Godiva." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 25 Jan. 2018. Web. 3 Feb. 2018.

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