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spy on (someone or something)

To observe someone or something in a clandestine or furtive manner, so as not to be noticed doing so. I can't believe you hired a private detective to spy on me—do you really distrust me that much? I was sent to spy on the foreign ambassador during his time in Washington.
See also: on, spy

spy out

1. To observe or investigate something or some place very closely or carefully in order to discover something or glean some information. A noun or pronoun can be used between "spy" and "out." We sent our best agents to spy the enemy encampment out in order to find a weak spot. I've been spying out some land to the west of town that could be suitable for our farm.
2. To discover something or glean some information as a result of close, careful observation. A noun or pronoun can be used between "spy" and "out." I've been sent to spy out what goes on behind closed doors at this factory. We so far haven't been able to spy any motive out for the attack.
See also: out, spy

spy out the land

To find out about or come to understand a particular state of affairs or the way a situation exists or has developed, especially before taking any decisive or definitive action. Given the turbulent nature of this market, I think it would be prudent for us to spy out the land before we agree to invest in your company. I'm just spying out the land regarding my parents' divorce before I make any solid plans to come visit them this Christmas.
See also: land, out, spy
Farlex Dictionary of Idioms. © 2015 Farlex, Inc, all rights reserved.

spy (up)on someone or something

to watch someone or something to learn secret or concealed information. (Upon is formal and less commonly used than on.) Are you spying upon me? I wasn't spying on you! I was just trying to see who you were.
See also: on, spy
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs. © 2002 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

spy on

Secretly or furtively observe someone or something, as in The children loved spying on the grownups, or The company sent him to spy on the competitor's sales force. [Early 1600s]
See also: on, spy
The American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer. Copyright © 2003, 1997 by The Christine Ammer 1992 Trust. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

ˌspy out the ˈland

find out about a situation, a place, an organization, etc. before you make a decision: The manager is sending Mark to Iceland to spy out the land. He wants to know whether we can do business there.
See also: land, out, spy
Farlex Partner Idioms Dictionary © Farlex 2017

spy on

or spy upon
To observe someone or something secretly and closely: A detective had been spying on the mayor's every move for months. The children spied upon their neighbors from the bushes along the property line.
See also: on, spy

spy out

1. To observe some place secretly and closely: The troops spied out the cave and decided it was safe to hide there. The explorers sent a scout into the valley to spy it out before descending.
2. To discover something by observing secretly and closely: Try to spy out what's going on on those rooftops. We followed the other teams' strategies carefully to spy them out.
See also: out, spy
The American Heritage® Dictionary of Phrasal Verbs. Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
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References in periodicals archive ?
What usually concerns us is the criminal spying intent on stealing our personal information.
It said that National Security Agency (NSA) spying on Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) is a violation of international law.
Another view with some possible accuracy could be that China would still be a world power without expanding so much of its resources on domestic spying. To put it another way, was the possibility of domestic opposition so great and dangerous that such a large extent of spying on its own citizens was actually necessary to safeguard the existence of the new Chinese government?
Many of the spies included are also found in other books on spying or in books covering women's roles in war, for example, Elizabeth Van Lew, Rose O'Neale Greenhow, Mata Haft, and Virginia Hall.
It emerged around the turn of the last century, about the same time that spying began to be professionally organised in the form that we know it today.
From Paris With Love ticks those boxes in terms of action, shooting and saving the day with spying and espionage.
The 10 alleged Russian agents pleaded guilty in a US federal court to spying. The judge ordered the spies to be deported immediately and "never to attempt to return to the US".
In 1985 Walker was arrested for selling highly classified information to the Soviet Union for which he had been spying since 1968.
By definition, spying involves secret, covert activity, though not necessarily lies, fraud or dishonesty.
The startling figures are featured at the Science of Spying exhibition running at the Science Museum in London.
IF spying, mystery and intrigue are what fascinate you, then plan a visit to London's Science Museum for its new interactive exhibition, The Science of Spying.
Byers' THE IMPERFECT SPY: THE INSIDE STORY OF A CONVICTED SPY (0918339669, $24.95) offers the biography of one George Trofimoff, an American civil servant convicted in 2001 of spying throughout the Cold War for the Soviet Union.
The president has defended his warrantless domestic spying with an imperial theory of inherent constitutional power that would empower him to open mail, break in and enter homes, or torture detainees, even in violation of federal criminal statutes.