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.

How Coronavirus and 31 Other Infectious Diseases and Viruses Got Their Names

Rotavirus—from the Latin rota, for "wheel"—is named for the wheel-like appearance of its particles.
Rotavirus—from the Latin rota, for "wheel"—is named for the wheel-like appearance of its particles.
Dr_Microbe/iStock via Getty Images

As you may already know, the corona in coronavirus has no relation to a certain refreshing beer often served with a slice of lime. Corōna means “crown” in Latin—and Spanish and Italian, too—and virologists chose it in 1968 to describe the group of viruses characterized by crown-like spikes that protrude from their surfaces.

So how do other viruses and diseases get their names? Based on the infographic below, created by Adam Aleksic for his website, The Etymology Nerd, there isn’t just one way. Some, like the coronavirus, are named for how they look under a microscope. The rota in rotavirus, for example, which means “wheel” in Latin, reflects the virus’s wheel-like appearance when viewed beneath an electron microscope.

Others are named after the locations where they were discovered or studied. In 1947, scientists named a newly identified mosquito-borne virus after Uganda’s Zika Forest. In 1977, Yale researchers investigating a string of pediatric arthritis cases in the town of Lyme, Connecticut, started referring to the illness as “Lyme arthritis.” Later, the name was modified to “Lyme disease” when scientists realized patients were exhibiting other symptoms, too.

Still others are characterized by the symptoms they cause. People with tetanus—from the Greek tetanos, for “tension”—usually experience muscle stiffness, and the skin of yellow fever sufferers often takes on a yellow tint due to jaundice.

Find out the origins of malaria, measles, and more below. And follow The Etymology Nerd on Instagram for more fascinating etymological explanations.

etymology nerd infectious disease names infographic
Unsurprisingly, there's a lot of Latin in this infographic.

What Makes a Hotel Breakfast 'Continental'?

Hotels often offer a complimentary pastry and fruit breakfast.
Hotels often offer a complimentary pastry and fruit breakfast.
tashka2000/iStock via Getty Images

The continental breakfast, which is typically made up of pastries, fruit, and coffee, is often advertised by hotels as a free perk for guests. But why is it called continental, and why don’t patrons get some eggs and bacon along with it?

The term dates back to 19th century Britain, where residents referred to mainland Europe as “the continent.” Breakfast in this region was usually something light, whereas an English or American breakfast incorporated meat, beans, and other “heavy” menu options.

American hotels that wanted to appeal to European travelers began advertising “continental breakfasts” as a kind of flashing neon sign to indicate guests wouldn’t be limited to American breakfast fare that they found unappealing. The strategy was ideal for hotels, which saved money by offering some muffins, fruit, and coffee and calling it a day.

That affordability as well as convenience—pastries and fruit are shelf-stable, requiring no heat or refrigeration to maintain food safety—is a big reason continental breakfasts have endured. It’s also a carryover from the hybrid model of hotel pricing, where American hotels typically folded the cost of meals into one bill and European hotels billed for food separately. By offering a continental breakfast, guests got the best of both worlds. And while Americans were initially aghast at the lack of sausages and pancakes on offer, they’ve since come around to the appeal of a muffin and some orange juice to get their travel day started.

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