11 Clandestine Words from the Lexicon of Spying

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Spies are a perpetual source of fascination in pop culture, from the adventures of James Bond to the travails of KGB agents Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings on The Americans—not to mention real-life tales of dead drops and honey traps. Most people are familiar with terms such as asset, tradecraft, and double agent, but some spy terms are a little more covert. Here’s a look at some clandestine words you should be prepared to disavow completely if questioned.

1. MOLE-CATCHER

Since the 1980s, mole-catcher has been used in relation to the lowest form of mole: the informant. In Gerald Priestland’s 1983 book At Large, he discusses “Mrs Thatcher's mole-catcher, the Mr Bingham of Epsom who is supposed to be plugging the leaks in Whitehall.” A Guardian article from 1986 mentions a downside to catching a sneak: “Prime Ministers were not necessarily overjoyed when the efforts of their mole catchers proved successful. The lurid publicity of a spy trial could be embarrassing.”

2. PHYLACTOLOGY

This word for counterespionage was coined by novelist Kingsley Amis in 1966’s The Anti-Death League: “Apparently what's called the philosophy of phylactology—spy-catching to you—has been transformed.” Amis also coined the rare words phylactological and phylactologist. Given their obscurity, these are perfect words for the spy game. You could put phylactologist on a business card, and no one would blink.

3. QUIET AMERICAN

This phrase is derived from the title to Graham Greene’s 1955 novel The Quiet American, whose protagonist Alden Pyle is a CIA agent in Vietnam.

4. SPIERY

The Oxford English Dictionary defines this obscure word as “The fact or condition of being a spy; the action of spying; espionage.” A mention in the awkwardly titled 1588 book The Troubles of Our Catholic Forefathers Related by Themselves puts the word in disreputable company: “examinations, confessions, fictions, accusations, slanders, spiery, recantation and the like.”

5. PLAY MATERIAL

Since the late 1800s, this has been a term for the harmless stuff given to children as play fodder, such as crayons, paper, and matches. But in the 1960s, another sense developed, retaining the sense of harmlessness. Eric Ambler used the term in his 1969 spy thriller The Intercom Conspiracy: “‘Play material’ was the jargon phrase used to describe the low-grade classified information fed back to the enemy through double agents.”

6. CUT-OUT

While cut-out sounds like more childlike play material, it’s a crucial cog in the machinery of spycraft. In his 1963 book They Call it Intelligence: Spies and Spy Techniques Since World War II, Joachim Joesten describes a cutout as “a trusted middleman.” The idea is compartmentalization, cutting out the spy from some of the risk and the cut-out from too much potentially dangerous information.

7. DISCOVERER

This is one of the most honest and dishonest words for a spy, who does often discover information, though not by the most straightforward means. This term has been describing spies and scouts since the mid-1400s, and it appears in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 2: “Here ... send discoverers forth, To know the numbers of our enemies.”

8. WORMING

It’s not unusual to hear someone engaged in slippery, ingratiating behavior described as worming their way into the hearts and minds of their dupes. You don’t often hear worming as meaning the work of spies, but it has occasionally had just this meaning. In Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher’s 1607 play The Woman Hater, spying is referred to as “this worming trade.”

9. SWALLOW

The honey trap or honey pot is one of the most famous espionage strategies: seducing someone as part of a ruse. Hardly an episode of The Americans goes by without one or both of the Jennings honey-trapping some lonely, gullible citizen. In the 1972 book Any Number Can Play, the awesomely named Dennis Bloodworth mentions a related term in a passage trimmed by the OED: “You have doubtless read about the ... ‘swallows’ of the KGB, the young ladies trained ... to bed down intelligence targets, so that they can be comfortably and conveniently bugged and photographed in compromising ... positions?”

10. CRYPTONYM

There are so many -nyms in the vocabulary of names. A pseudonym is an author’s fake name, while an eponym is a word derived from a name. But a cryptonym is far more sly: Since the mid-1800s, it’s been a code name, especially for a spy. An 1862 use in St. James’ Magazine mentions a common feature of spy life: “For a short time he assumed several unobtrusive civilian cryptonyms.”

11. LURCHER

No offense to Frankenstein, but lurching has never had the best reputation. The OED definition explains how this word found itself in the espionage lexicon: “One who loiters or lies hidden in a suspicious manner; a spy.” Other disreputable meanings of lurcher include a cross-bred dog and a swindler. So if a labradoodle ever wants to sell you real estate, beware.

Wayfair’s Fourth of July Clearance Sale Takes Up to 60 Percent Off Grills and Outdoor Furniture

Wayfair/Weber
Wayfair/Weber

This Fourth of July, Wayfair is making sure you can turn your backyard into an oasis while keeping your bank account intact with a clearance sale that features savings of up to 60 percent on essentials like chairs, hammocks, games, and grills. Take a look at some of the highlights below.

Outdoor Furniture

Brisbane bench from Wayfair
Brisbane/Wayfair

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Grills and Accessories

Dyna-Glo electric smoker.
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Outdoor games

American flag cornhole game.
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The Racist Origins of 7 Common Phrases

Rasmus Gundorff Sæderup, Unsplash
Rasmus Gundorff Sæderup, Unsplash

Even the most nonsensical idioms in the English language originated somewhere. Some terms, like silver lining and tomfoolery, have innocuous roots, while other sayings date back to the darkest chapters in U.S. history. While these common phrases are rarely used in their original contexts today, knowing their racist origins casts them in a different light.

1. Tipping Point

This common phrase describes the critical point when a change that had been a possibility becomes inevitable. When it was popularized, according to Merriam-Webster, it was applied to one phenomenon in particular: white flight. In the 1950s, as white people abandoned urban areas for the suburbs in huge numbers, journalists began using the phrase tipping point in relation to the percentage of minority neighbors it took to trigger this reaction in white city residents. Tipping point wasn’t coined in the 1950s (it first appeared in print in the 19th century), but it did enter everyday speech during the decade thanks to this topic.

2. Long Time, No See

The saying long time, no see can be traced back to the 19th century. In a Boston Sunday Globe article from 1894, the words are applied to a Native American speaker. The broken English phrase was also used to evoke white people's stereotypical ideas of Native American speech in William F. Drannan’s 1899 book Thirty-One Years on the Plains and in the Mountains, Or, the Last Voice from the Plains An Authentic Record of a Life Time of Hunting, Trapping, Scouting and Indian Fighting in the Far West.

It's unlikely actual Native Americans were saying long time, no see during this era. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this type of isolating construction would have been unusual for the indigenous languages of North America. Rather, it originated as a way for white writers to mock Native American speech, and that of non-native English speakers from other places like China. By the 1920s, it had become an ordinary part of the American vernacular.

3. Mumbo Jumbo

Before it was synonymous with jargon or other confusing language, the phrase mumbo jumbo originated with religious ceremonies in West Africa. In the Mandinka language, the word Maamajomboo described a masked dancer who participated in ceremonies. Former Royal African Company clerk Francis Moore transcribed the name as mumbo jumbo in his 1738 book Travels into the Inland Parts of Africa. In the early 1800s, English speakers started to divorce the phrase from its African origins and apply it to anything that confused them.

4. Sold Down the River

Before the phrase sold down the river meant betrayal, it originated as a literal slave-trading practice. Enslaved people from more northerly regions were sold to cotton plantations in the Deep South via the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. For enslaved people, the threat of being “sold down the river” implied separation from family and a life of hard labor. A journal entry from April 1835 mentions a person who, “having been sold to go down the river, attempted first to cut off both of his legs, failing to do that, cut his throat, did not entirely take his life, went a short distance and drowned himself.”

5. No Can Do

Similar to long time, no see, no can do originated as a jab at non-native English speakers. According to the OED, this example was likely directed at Chinese immigrants in the early 20th century. Today, many people who use the phrase as general slang for "I can’t do that" are unaware of its cruel origins.

6. Indian Giver

Merriam-Webster defines an Indian giver as “a person who gives something to another and then takes it back.” One of the first appearances was in Thomas Hutchinson’s History of the Colony of Massachuset’s Bay in the mid 18th century. In a note, it says “An Indian gift is a proverbial expression, signifying a present for which an equivalent return is expected.” In the 19th century, the stereotype was transferred from the gift to the giver, the idea of an “equivalent return” was abandoned, and it became used as an insult. An 1838 N.-Y. Mirror article mentions the “distinct species of crimes and virtues” of schoolchildren, elaborating, "I have seen the finger pointed at the Indian giver. (One who gives a present and demands it back again.)" Even as this stereotype about indigenous people faded, the phrase Indian giver has persisted into the 21st century. The word Indian in Indian giver also denotes something false, as it does in the antiquated phrase Indian summer.

7. Cakewalk

In the antebellum South, some enslaved African Americans spent Sundays dressing up and performing dances in the spirit of mocking the white upper classes. The enslavers didn’t know they were the butt of the joke, and even encouraged these performances and rewarded the best dancers with cake, hence the name. Possibly because this was viewed as a leisurely weekend activity, the phrase cakewalk became associated with easy tasks. Cakewalks didn’t end with slavery: For decades, they remained (with cake prizes) a part of African American life, but at the same time white actors in blackface incorporated the act into minstrel shows, turning what began as a satire of white elites into a racist caricature of Black people.