12 Historical Code Words and Phrases

Asking a police officer “do you drink?” in the 1970s had nothing to do with grabbing a beer at a nearby bar.
George Washington went by a code name during the Revolutionary War. (And technically, he should be saying, “Hello, my 411 is 711”—411 was the code for “name.”)
George Washington went by a code name during the Revolutionary War. (And technically, he should be saying, “Hello, my 411 is 711”—411 was the code for “name.”) / VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images (Washington), pop_jop/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images (speech bubble)

Modern day cruise goers might hear a call of “Oscar Oscar Oscar” over a ship’s public address system and (if they think about it at all) might assume that someone is looking for a person named Oscar. On some ships, however, Oscar Oscar Oscar actually means “person overboard”—and that’s just one example of how code words are used in various industries and situations in the modern world. But speaking in code isn’t a modern phenomenon: Throughout history, people have come up with all kinds of codes to allude to things they wanted to keep secret, from the movement of troops to information about gold coins. Here’s a look at a few fascinating historical code words and phrases.


George Washington by Charles Willson Peale
George Washington by Charles Willson Peale. / Fine Art/GettyImages

During the Revolutionary War, Major Benjamin Tallmadge set up a group known as the Culper Spy Ring in order to track the British military’s movements in New York. The group sent information to George Washington’s headquarters using 763 numerical codes, each of which stood in for a particular word or members of the spy ring: 763, for example, meant “Head Quarters,” while 711 was used to refer to George Washington.

Do you drink, officer?

The idea of drinking alcohol has sometimes been used as a form of code. For example, at Freeman’s Quay near London Bridge in the 19th century, the expression to drink at Freeman’s Quay was used as a euphemism—at first to describe the free drinks that were given to porters at the quay, and later as a general code word for anyone drinking on someone else’s dime.

Drink-related code has also been used to allude to something that doesn’t involved drinking at all: In the UK  in the 1970s, a person under arrest could ask a police officer “Do you drink?” to establish whether they might accept a bribe.


The world of finance naturally involves a certain amount of security, and in the era of telegrams, bankers learned to use code words when sending messages about sensitive issues. For example, agents at Wells Fargo bank who wanted to discuss gold coins without drawing attention might substitute that phrase with the word hornet, which the agent on the other end would decode using a cipher book.


Underground Railroad Illustration
Illustration of enslaved people using a route on the Underground Railroad, circa 1800. / Three Lions/GettyImages

In 19th century America, enslaved Black Americans seeking freedom often got help from the Underground Railroad, a connection of safe houses that provided shelter and assistance as they made their way to free states and Canada. Those helping and taking the Underground Railroad developed their own terminology so that plans could be discussed and carried out without alerting the slave catchers. One of the code words used in the network was fleece; it referred to enslaved people who had managed to escape.

Bacon and Magic

Unsurprisingly, wars have been accompanied by entire lexicons of coded language (not to mention military slang) to describe events, items, and plans. One used by the American Expeditionary Forces during World War I was bacon, code for an automatic rifle. Other code words were less down-to-earth—magic, for example, was the code word for horse-drawn combat carts.

Blind tiger

Men and Women Drinking at a Speakeasy Party
Men and Women Drinking at a Speakeasy Party. / Library of Congress/GettyImages

Prohibition in the U.S. lasted from 1920 to 1933, and during that time, the creation, importation, and sale of most alcohol was banned in America. But the fact that drinking alcohol was against the law didn’t stop people from imbibing; in fact, the number of secret establishments where illicit booze was available exploded during the Prohibition era. (There may have been as many as 100,000 in New York City alone.) While they were most commonly known as speakeasies, another code word for them was blind tiger. The term originated in the mid-1800s, and according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was “Apparently originally so named as part of a scheme in which customers would ostensibly pay to see a blind tiger, not for the alcohol they were served.” 

Holly and Brimstone

A wide range of code words was created by the Allies during World War II to refer to locations and planned attacks under a veil of secrecy. Code words for places included Holly (Canton Island), Spooner (New Zealand), and Nabob (Northern Ireland). Some of the code words for attacks or movements alluded to things that were ultimately not carried out, like Brimstone (the plan for the capture of Sardinia). Torch, on the other hand, referred to something that did happen: The Allied invasion of North Africa in 1942.


Navajo Code Talkers in the Field
Navajo Code Talkers in the Field. / Historical/GettyImages

Another form of code in World War II was employed by the Navajo Code Talkers, who used Navajo words—or developed them when military terms didn’t exist in Navajo—to stand in for everything from letters of the alphabet to types of ships. One of the code words they came up with that didn’t exist in Navajo was besh-lo, which meant “iron fish”—a.k.a., a submarine. Navajo Code Talkers operated in the Pacific theatre, but there were members of other Native American tribes acting as code talkers in Europe as well.

Blessent mon coeur d’une langueur monotone

During World War II, the BBC’s World Service found ways to slip coded messages into broadcasts intended for listeners around the world, from freedom fighters in Poland to the French Resistance leading the opposition to the Nazis in France. One of the most important codes sent to the latter group was a broadcast of the phrase Blessent mon coeur d’une langueur monotone (“Wound my heart with a monotonous languor”) just before June 5, 1944, which was a signal that the D-Day invasion was imminent.  The line came from in the poem “Chanson d’automne” by the 19th-century French writer Paul Verlaine.


In the years before Roe vs. Wade made abortion legal in the U.S., a secret network sometimes known as the Jane Collective helped women who wanted to end their pregnancies. The group, which was based in Chicago, placed low-key newspaper ads advising women who did not want to be pregnant to “Call Jane” at the number listed in the ad. That number would put the woman in contact with people who were able to organize an abortion for her. Jane was selected because it was seen as an “Everywoman” name.

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