Created By: AspieNovember 22, 2011 Last Edited By: SeptimusHeapMarch 16, 2013
Troped

Covert Distress Code

A word or set of words used to indicate danger in a covert operation

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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.

Examples

[[folder:Film]]
  • 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.
[[/folder]]

[[folder:Literature]]
  • 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 Lucifers 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]]

[[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]]

[[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".
[[/folder]]
Community Feedback Replies: 63
  • November 23, 2011
    TechUnadept
  • November 23, 2011
    ChunkyDaddy
    Safe Word is differrent. Safe Word is a word that is used to indicate No without saying No. This trope is about a word or a phrase that indicates danger or distress

  • November 23, 2011
    pinkdalek
    In An Idiot Abroad, Karl's distress code in case he gets kidnapped in the Middle East is 'congress tart'.
  • November 23, 2011
    nielas
    • 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'. It is the team's code word for a situation like this.
  • November 23, 2011
    Shnakepup
    Does it have to be spoken? I think I've seen nonverbal examples of this; like, someone will be watching you through a scope, and you casually brush your shoulder to signal to them that something's wrong and the mission needs to be aborted.
  • November 23, 2011
    Duncan
    Real Life; my best friend and I, if we get kidnapped and the other happens to call and we're being held at gunpoint while forced to act natural on the phone, our Trust Password is "It's very warm in here".
  • November 24, 2011
    Arivne
    Film
    • 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.
  • November 24, 2011
    BooleanEarth
    ^^That sounds like a Troper Tales thing to me.
  • February 19, 2012
    Stratadrake
    Given the TRS thread for Something They Would Never Say I'm going to bump this. Good definition, could benefit from some title brainstorming, would help alleviate the misused trope.
  • February 19, 2012
    chicagomel
    • CSI did it with the season 6 finale, 'Way To Go'. Brass was acting as a hostage negotiator, and his code was 'Jimmy', a form of his first name. Unfortunately, the rescue attempt backfired and he was shot, though he survived.
  • February 19, 2012
    TomWalpertac2
    • Star Trek TOS did this once when Kirk told Scotty that every thing was 'Code Green' on the Roman planet. They were in trouble but any rescue attempt would have been disastrous.
  • February 20, 2012
    Arivne
    ^ That episode was "Bread and Circuses", BTW.
  • February 20, 2012
    randomsurfer
    In the Tom Swift Jr. series Tom & Bud use baseball references as distress codes.
  • February 20, 2012
    SquirrelGuy
    In the movie adaptation of Arthur Hailey's The Moneychangers, a bank agent of some sort who is investigating underworld activity is given a credit card with which to buy something in case he gets in trouble. (Something that costs enough to check that the numbers are legit, since this was before the instant card readers we have today). The name on the card: H. E. Lathrop. The word "help", get it?
  • February 23, 2012
    NightNymph
    • In the episode "Hunted" of Supernatural, Dean communicated to Sam over the phone that he was being held hostage with a gun to his head through the code word "Funkytown." This was only partially successful, because even though Dean managed to use the word in an innocuous way and Sam understood the message, Dean's captor, Gordon, was also a hunter (and paranoid) and so correctly surmised that Dean had somehow found a way to warn Sam of his situation.
  • February 23, 2012
    oztrickster
    Used in Fringe, when Olivia is going to meet an arms/virus dealer, her code word for backup is Christmas.
  • February 23, 2012
    JobanGrayskull
    • In day 5 of 24, Jack Bauer is captured by terrorists and forced to relay faulty intel to CTU. He uses the phrase "flank 2 position" to indicate he is under duress. Unfortunately CTU very nearly misses the message, as they had updated their distress protocols during the period of time where Jack was not part of the organization.
  • February 23, 2012
    randomsurfer
    In an episode of Hill Street Blues a civilian informant is wired up to get some info on some bad guys. The code was "it's getting hot in here." Then when he uses the phrase, the cops in the Van In Black don't respond - one says "He said it's getting hot" and the other cop says "yeah, it's boiling." The civilan gets beat up in the bathroom.
  • February 23, 2012
    LeeM
    ^^ IIRC the Star Trek example was actually Condition Green (which might not be a bad title for this trope, although completely non-descriptive)
  • February 23, 2012
    MetaFour
    An example I remember from the Something They Would Never Say page:

    • In Questionable Content, Faye and her Crazy Prepared mother have worked out a code phrase for when Faye was being held against her will.
      Faye: No mother, the peaches are definitely not ripe.
  • February 23, 2012
    Unknown Troper
    They have those a lot in Chuck, I'm thinking of the emergency word in the Buy More and the word they made up so that in interrogation room the other would know that they want to speak alone
  • February 23, 2012
    happyhippo
    Can we add something about when the codeword is obscure and nobody remembers it? Like in Ice Age...kinda...
  • April 7, 2012
    Stratadrake
    YKTTW Bump. This is needed to help address the misuse of Something They Would Never Say.
  • April 8, 2012
    randomsurfer
    In the novel The Evening News a news anchor mentions to his wife that he has some prearranged visual codes to alert people about the situation if he's ever kidnapped and forced to make a video, and tells her of a couple of them. These comes in handy when his wife and son are kidnapped by a South American drug kingpin.
  • April 21, 2012
    HawkofBattle
    • Humurously averted in Lost by Ben
      Ben: No, John, we don't have a code for 'there's a man in my closet with a gun to my daughter's head. Although obviously we should...
  • October 18, 2012
    MattStriker
    Mass Effect 2, in the VIP lounge on Omega. One of the activities you can do to attract your target's attention is to save an undercover reporter by dropping the right codewords in an apparently 'random' conversation.
  • October 18, 2012
    Unknown Troper
    In the Borne Supremacy, Nicky gives the response to her personal Duress challenge; It's "Everest"

  • October 18, 2012
    Stratadrake
    Wikipedia has an article on the subject: duress code.
  • October 19, 2012
    foxley
    In the Modesty Blaise comic strip, 'Jacqueline' is an agreed on code phrase between Modesty and Willie. In either one uses the name in conversation, it means they are in trouble and cannot speak freely.
  • October 19, 2012
    nitrokitty
    On launch, should also import the misused examples from Something They Would Never Say.
  • October 19, 2012
    SKJAM
    hmm, what about hospital PA codes devised to avoid panic (or gawking)--which need to be changed every so often as patients and visitors learn the pattern?

    • In the manga Hana the Anesthesiologist, the PA asks "Aoi-san" to report to the nurses' desk. This is explained as the replacement code for "Code Blue", a cardiac arrest.
  • October 20, 2012
    Stratadrake
  • October 20, 2012
    CaveCat
    • In the Hank The Cowdog book "The Case Of The Kidnapped Collie", Hank was faced with the task of saving his Love Interest, Beulah the collie, from the feared coyote, Scraunch the Terrible, so he sang a love song to Beulah, which Scraunch did not hear. Fortunately for Hank, it was a good thing that Scraunch did not hear him singing to Beulah, because he had added a secret message to Beulah in the song that promised that he will save her.
  • October 27, 2012
    Xtifr
    • In Burn Notice, ex-spy Michael and ex-terrorist Fiona have developed a number of ordinary phrases they can drop into a conversation to convey meanings like, "this is a trap, be alert" or "this phone call is being made under duress, don't believe anything I'm saying."
  • November 26, 2012
    Pig_catapult
    SKJAM: You're thinking of Code Emergency.
  • November 26, 2012
    johnnye
    • Would I Lie To You had a contestant claiming to have a particular "fake laugh" which was a signal to her husband that she wanted to get out of a party. It was a lie.

    Could we get some disambiguation between this, Trust Password and Something They Would Never Say? Is it just that this is prearranged and those are improvised?
  • November 27, 2012
    Stratadrake
    This actually is part of the TRS action to fix Something They Would Never Say, because it's got a lot of confusion for several different (both technically and thematically) tropes:

    • An impostor/character in disguise says something OOC for their cover (Spotting The Thread et al.).
    • An improvised clue that a character is in trouble but can't say it directly (Out Of Character Alert).
    • A known, prearranged signal that a character is in trouble but can't reveal it (this).
  • January 14, 2013
    SeptimusHeap
    Bumping this to get examples.
  • January 18, 2013
    dvorak
  • January 18, 2013
    Arivne
    Safe Word is currently two tropes mashed together: a covert way of saying "stop" plus this trope. I think this one should be split off from Safe Word and all examples that are actually this trope moved over.
  • January 18, 2013
    Chabal2
    Achille Talon in the story where he finds himself king of a Ruritania and tries out the code given by his spymaster ("Good heavens! I have misplaced my carburator!") toget out of a Bar Brawl. It summons several police squads, a tank, and the spymaster.
  • January 18, 2013
    Stratadrake
    @dvorak: Don't just type the name of a trope, use it in a complete sentence.
  • January 25, 2013
    SeptimusHeap
    Bumping this to get it moving.
  • January 25, 2013
    marcoasalazarm
    'Covert Distress Code' sounds good as a Trope name, although it should have that Wikipedia link for 'Duress Code' (but rarely does Fiction-land calls it that) and mention that it's definitely Truth In Television.

    Maybe it's a Sub-Trope of 'Something They Would Never Say', 'Trust Password', 'Crazy Prepared' (well, it definitely applies as 'Crazy Prepared' in context-spies and policemen probably normally have them and audiences may expect them to have them even if they never use them on-screen, but regular folk...).

    And.... yeah, a 'Lost' subversion is up there, but it was also played straight at one point: when one of the people that came on Whitmore's ship (Naomi-the girl that Locke stabbed in the back) finally manages to contact the ship before bleeding to death, she says 'tell my sister that I love her' and then dies...

    ...which was heartwarming in context, until the other Boaties found act very violently paranoid to the islanders-as Miles needs to sarcastically remind Daniel at one scene, 'tell my sister that I love her' was a duress code.
  • January 28, 2013
    SeptimusHeap
    Edited the YKTTW according to ^.
  • January 28, 2013
    Stratadrake
    ^^ Something They Would Never Say got renamed to Out Of Character Alert due to a lot of misuse.
  • January 28, 2013
    SeptimusHeap
    Ok, we do have five hats. Any more comments or is this launchready?
  • January 28, 2013
    JoeG
    • In Lucifers 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.
  • February 2, 2013
    SeptimusHeap
    More examples, please!
  • February 2, 2013
    GuyIncog
    As an add-on to the Flashpoint example, the team uses "Scorpio" as the signal to fire on a suspect.

    Film example:
    • 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.
  • February 3, 2013
    SeptimusHeap
    Added the examples and folderized the page. Any more examples?
  • February 10, 2013
    SeptimusHeap
    Can we get more examples, please?
  • February 11, 2013
    thewriter
    Another Supernatural example. In "Everybody Hates Hitler" San tells Dean over the phone that he has "Gum on his shoe" which means that he is being followed.
  • March 6, 2013
    Nocturna
    Does this have to be actual words?

    There's an example in The Hobbit where Bilbo is preparing to sneak up on the trolls where he's told the distress signal is for him to hoot like an owl (it's more specific than that, but I don't have my book handy at the moment). Played with in that Bilbo actually doesn't know how to make the correct hoots, so it doesn't do him any good.
  • March 6, 2013
    marcoasalazarm
    Dunno if it fits here or not: one of the first gags of American Dad is Stan reminding Steve on how to do Morse Code with eyeblinks in case he's ever kidnapped (although the gag is typical Mc Farlane: it's to provide coordinates for Stan to drop a bomb on the kidnappers, to hell with the fact his son is right there).
  • March 7, 2013
    PaulA
    ^^ "Now scuttle off, and come back quick, if all is well. If not, come back if you can! It you can't, hoot twice like a barn-owl and once like a screech-owl, and we will do what we can."
  • March 7, 2013
    Tuckerscreator
    • In the Halo books, the Spartans' classified distress call is "Olly Olly Oxen Free".
    • The card game Kent is won by a player getting four cards of a kind and secretly revealing this to his partner. If the opposing players discern their signal, they win instead. The players get no chance to tell each other what their signal will be, so Kent takes plenty of guesswork to figure out what might be a signal and what's false bait.
  • March 8, 2013
    Arivne
    Other Sites
    • The List of Character Survival Techniques Version 1.5 includes the following:
      Keywords/phrases
      These can be useful. The party should have a short list of subtle signs, with meanings like:
      "Something is wrong, try to leave unobtrusively."
      "Get ready for a fight."
      "Get ready to run like hell."
  • March 14, 2013
    SeptimusHeap
    More examples, please!
  • March 14, 2013
    KTera
    • 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".
  • March 14, 2013
    bushiki
    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.
  • March 16, 2013
    SeptimusHeap
    Added these and alphabetized examples.

Three days must pass before this YKTTW is Launchworthy or Discardable