Spy Slang: 24 Top Secret Terms You Should Know

The spy game has a language all its own.
Spies use slang to keep a lid on things.
Spies use slang to keep a lid on things. / Moor Studio/DigitalVision Vectors via Getty Images
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Espionage novelist John le Carré penned hits like The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. But his lasting contribution to the spy genre may have been in the vernacular of his characters. Le Carré is credited with inventing or popularizing slang terms associated with espionage ( mole, or “an agent in deep cover,” was one of the words he made popular). In fact, it’s the spy world that may have adopted it from le Carré, who worked for British intelligence before becoming a full-time author.

Mole isn’t the only term that’s bled into pop culture from the murky world of secret agents. Take a look at 20 bits of spy slang that can keep you covert affairs under wraps.

Pocket Litter

Spies who want to be prepared for a cursory examination of their identity carry pocket litter—personalized items like a driver’s license, travel ticket, or letter—to help provide evidence of their cover.

Blowback

Opening oneself up to repercussions for acts taken in the line of spy duty is known as blowback; it can also mean a negative outcome for one’s country. (Assassinating a political leader, for example, might lead to plenty of blowback.) Before it gained its spy sense, blowback referred to when gas, ammunition, or other explosive material ignited in the wrong direction.

Dead Drop and Concealment Device

Before the intelligence community got ahold of it, dead drop was used to describe a free dive off a board without any somersaults or other complexities. But from the late 1950s onward, the term has been used to refer to a secure location where a spy can either leave or retrieve valuable information or materials without being seen with fellow agents or informants. If the item needs to be hidden, agents might opt to use a concealment device—which the CIA defines as “an ordinary object with a hidden cavity used to hide things”—to keep it from prying eyes.

Safehouse (Safe House)

In spy lingo, a site in an undisclosed location that’s been cleared of any potential danger is called a “safehouse.” Spies can hole up there, protect informants or other assets, or meet up with colleagues without fear of being seen. Safehouse was used as far back as the 1500s to describe a prison.

Chicken Feed

Chickens eating out of a person's hands
‘Chicken feed’ has a totally different meaning in spy slang. / kentarus/E+/Getty Images

Chicken feed took on colloquial meaning in the early 1800s to describe a paltry sum of money or something of inconsequential value. In the spy world, it’s information you can hand over to the enemy that helps establish credibility without sacrificing anything truly top secret.

Kompromat

Kompromat is a term used for material collected by Russian intelligence that can be used to blackmail or control a target—like photos of a married man having an affair, for example. The word combines kompro- from komprometirujuščij, or “compromising,” with mat- from material.

Exfiltration

When a valuable asset or defector needs to be escorted out of hostile territory, they require exfiltration—a secretive operation to get them out of the country. The term dates back to 1878 and originally meant “the action or process of filtering out,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Pavement Artist

Pavement artist originally had a very literal meaning: It was a term for artists who used sidewalks as a canvas for works rendered in chalk. In the espionage sense, it refers to a spy on the trail of a person of interest who is following them on foot, typically outdoors.

Triple Agent

Double agents are operatives who misrepresent their loyalties, and a triple agent might misrepresent their intentions to two parties. The term can also refer to an agent who pretends to be a double agent for one country while secretly being a double agent for another.

Dangle

Dangle is a term for “a person who is made accessible to a foreign intelligence agency with the intent of being recruited by that agency to then work as a double agent for the person’s own country,” according to the CIA Spy Speak Glossary.

Walk-In

photo illustration of man walking toward open door
Intelligence agencies allow walk ins, too. / Klaus Vedfelt/Digital Vision/Getty Images

A person who has information that would prove valuable to a rival intelligence agency and who comes in unsolicited is known as a walk-in.

Rolled-Up

When a covert operation goes sideways and discovered by the enemy, it’s said to be “rolled-up.”

Sleeper Agent

An operative who leads a mundane life until their government “activates” them is known as a sleeper agent.

Flaps Well Down

This now-antiquated phrase was used to describe an operative (usually British) who was staying off the radar due to concern over their personal safety.

Picnic

family having a picnic
This isn’t exactly what spies think about when they hear the word ‘picnic.’ / C. Devan/The Image Bank/Getty Images

When the site of an assignment is believed to be low risk or otherwise simple, it’s called a “picnic.”

Ghoul

The word ghoul is used for an agent or officer who nabs the names of the dead to create false identities for undercover work. The term—which also refers to a malevolent spirit that prowls cemeteries or other desolated places—has roots in 18th-century Arabic folklore.

Sheep Dipping

According to The New York Times, sheep-dipping refers to “the planting of an agent in a civilian group or organization to collect information on that or on similar groups.”

Come in From the Cold

A spy who is ready to resume a (comparatively) normal life after a period of isolation and deep cover is said to be “coming in from the cold.” John le Carré popularized the term (one of many) with his 1963 novel The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.

Walk Back the Cat

Angry cat walking
Even spies would have a hard time walking back this cat. / junku/Moment/Getty Images

Walk back the cat means “to retrace the steps or events that led to an outcome.” If a spy became a traitor, operatives might walk back the cat to determine where they went awry. If a foreign government arrives at an unexpected decision, intelligence might look to see what preceded it.

HUMINT

Short for “human intelligence,” HUMINT denotes information gathered via person-to-person contact rather than via technology. Reportedly, onetime CIA director William Webster had no clue what this or other spy lingo meant when he took over the agency in 1987 and had to learn. (Webster preferred a colloquial term for himself: The Judge.)

Wet Work, Wet Stuff, and Double-Tapped

Wet work refers to a job that requires murder or assassination; the term is a likely reference to spilled blood. Such missions are also known as wet stuff. If your method of elimination is a gun and a person is shot twice, they’re said to have beendouble-tapped.” Ideally, such operations won’t result in any blowback.

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