Covert Distress Code YKTTW Discussion

Covert Distress Code
A word or set of words used to indicate danger in a covert operation
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(permanent link) added: 2011-11-22 22:55:37 sponsor: Aspie edited by: SeptimusHeap (last reply: 2013-03-16 03:53:50)

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[by Stratadrake] Volunteering to manage this YKTTW; it'll solve some of the misuse issues for Something They Would Never Say.

Any memorized code word, phrase, or action dropped into a message or conversation to secretly convey a distress call without unwanted or eavesdropping parties realizing it.

This is an important skill for undercover operatives (detectives and spies, say), who can't just "call for backup" if they get into trouble because it'll blow their cover (possibly with a bullet to the head). For obvious reasons a good covert distress code should be easy to remember, but it should also be easy to work into an ordinary conversation without sounding suspicious, like Spy Speak -- but it can't be something that the character might wind up saying coincidentally in ordinary conversations.

For cases where the hidden distress code has been improvised on the spot -- in which even the intended recipient may fail to notice it until later -- see Out-of-Character Alert.

Compare Trust Password, which is typically used to provide a sense of safety as opposed to warning about danger.

See also Duress code for the Real Life term for this concept.


  • At the beginning of The Negotiator, Danny Roman flashes hand signals (1, 2, and 3 fingers) to alert the sniper team when to fire. The "1" signal is worked into his conversation with the hostage taker as a "wait a minute" gesture, while the others are displayed with his back turned to the suspect.
  • Running Scared (1986). Police detectives Hughes and Costanza force Snake to go undercover with a hidden microphone to set up the drug lord Julio. They tell Snake that if he gets into trouble he should say "snakebite" and they'll come rescue him.

  • In The Evening News, a news anchor describes to his wife some of his prearanged visual codes to alert people if he's ever kidnapped and forced to send a video message. This comes in handy later when his wife and son are themselves kidnapped by a South American drug kingpin.
  • In The Famous Five a standard covert distress call is for George to sign her name 'Georgina' (something that she hates doing) whenever the bad guys inexplicably ask the captured children to send a note to the non-captured ones, to alert them that something is wrong.
  • In Lucifer's Hammer there are two sentries guarding the settlement at any time: an outer sentry to talk to people trying to enter, and a hidden inner sentry who watches and guards the outer sentry. If the outer sentry raises both hands over his head, this is the signal for the inner sentry to shoot the person at the gate, presumably because that is the one gesture least likely to get you killed if someone is pointing a gun at you.

[[folder:Live-Action TV]]
  • On The A-Team "Red Ball One" and "Bag is Leaking" mean "big trouble" and "one of the team took some lead" as explained to Amy by Murdock, who receives the code from the team.
  • On Flashpoint the leader of the SRU team is taken hostage but the rest of the cops are unaware of this. He is told to give his team instructions over the radio as normal and direct them away from the hostage taker. He complies but tells his team members to 'stay frosty' -- his team's code word for a situation like this.
  • In An Idiot Abroad, Karl's distress code in case he gets kidnapped in the Middle East is 'congress tart'.
  • A rookie agent on NUMB3RS once went undercover to catch a group of people kidnapping ATM users and was given the distress code "Mexico" to use if the operation starts to go south. It does, but she's too stubborn to use the word, believing that she can salvage the operation on her own. Don berates her for this later and assigns her to answering telephones.
  • When Neal Caffrey of White Collar has to go undercover as a foreign man named Mr. Black (whom he assumed was a courier at the time), he is told that if anything bad happens, he should use the words "long flight" to alert Peter. Subverted in that when he discovers that Mr. Black is a hitman and not a courier, he attempts to use the phrase and fails because the criminals have employed a signal jammer.

[[folder:Video Games]]
  • Also from Mass Effect 2, Quarians returning to the Migrant Fleet have a code phrase that indicates they're in danger. They have a second phrase that indicates their mission was successful and the ship they're aboard is no danger to the Fleet; Tali'Zorah's is "After time adrift among open stars, along tides of light and shoals of dust, I will return to where I began".
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