Also known simply as a "duress code
", this is any memorized code word, phrase, or action dropped into a message or conversation to discreetly convey a distress call to someone without unwanted or eavesdropping third parties realizing it.
This is an important device for any undercover operative (detectives and spies, say), who can't just "call for backup" if they get into trouble because it'll blow their cover (if not their head
), but really anyone can arrange a code ahead of time — you never know when being Crazy-Prepared
will pay off. It's incredibly useful if you have to issue a Quiet Cry for Help
As a type of Spy Speak
, the code should (for obvious reasons) be easy to remember and easy to work into a harmless conversation without sounding suspicious or off-topic. At the same time, it also can't be something that the character might wind up saying coincidentally in ordinary conversations (i.e. a false alarm).
Mind that this only applies to codes that are agreed upon in advance of their usage - see Out-of-Character Alert
if the speaker has to improvise a distress code on the spot (because if so, even the intended recipient may fail to notice the signal until later).
Compare Trust Password
, which is typically used to provide a sense of safety as opposed to warning about danger. Also compare Safe Word
for code words of a more ... Freudian nature.
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- 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.
- A variation in The Bourne Ultimatum. Nicky, a CIA agent, has just unexpectedly entered a CIA office where Bourne killed two hitmen. The CIA calls the office to check what's going on. As part of standard procedures, they give Nicky a one-word sign, to which she needs to respond with a countersign: either the "normal" countersign, or the "duress" code. Even though Bourne is right in front of her and pointing a gun at her, she responds with the "normal" signóconfirming that she's sympathetic to Bourne and wants to help.
- 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 novels based on the Halo series, the Spartans' classified distress call is a simple "Olly Olly Oxen Free".
- In The Hobbit, when Bilbo is preparing to sneak up on some trolls, he's told that should he get into serious trouble, "hoot twice like a barn-owl and once like a screech-owl, and we will do what we can" — however, it turns out Bilbo doesn't actually know how to make the correct owl sounds, so it doesn't do him any good.
- 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.
- The Star Wars Expanded Universe novel Han Solo's Revenge inverts this. Han is being marched back to the Falcon at gunpoint, warned to not make any suspicious moves. This is fine, because Chewbacca is waiting for him to give the all-clear signal, and deploys the ship's guns when he doesn't get it.
- Mentioned on the Death Lands book "Pandora's Redoubt". The Companions use a variety of names when greeted by a scouting member for certain actions, like "all clear", "run away" or "kill the guy with me". They explicitly mention that if they use anybody's real name in such a context, they have been coerced somehow and the Companions must shoot the member, whoever is with them, and run the hell away really fast.
- The girls of The Baby-Sitters Club create such a code to use in case one of them is babysitting and hears a prowler. In a subversion, it turns out that they can't remember the code phrases five minutes after creating them, much less in an actual stressful situation.
- Prince of the City, by Robert Daley. Two crooks hear a rumor that the protagonist is working with the DA to expose corruption, and grab him off the street to interrogate him. On two occasions he's able to get to a phone, call the DA's office and give the distress code. Unfortunately the secretary doesn't recognise the code (it's along the lines of "I can't make breakfast", so doesn't sound urgent). Fortunately a member of the Mafia vouches for him, so he's let go and makes his third call. This time the apologetic secretary puts him through immediately, the DA having returned to his office and realised what's happened. The protagonist just coldly states his location and tells the DA to pick him up.
- Modesty Blaise: If Modesty or Willy insert the name 'Jacqueline' into a conversation, the other knows that they are under duress and not able to speak freely.
- The List of Character Survival Techniques Version 1.5, as a guide to RPG players, includes the following tip:
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."
- In Mass Effect, Quarians returning to the Migrant Fleet have a code phrase that indicates they're in danger. They also 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."
- A major plot point in The New Adventures Of Captain Scarlet episode "Trap For A Rhino". The Mysterons are actually counting on a kidnapped Spectrum agent using her duress code so they can ambush the rescue team and hijack the titular Rhino armoured vehicle, which they intend to use to blow up a nearby nuclear power station.
- According to some newspaper stories, Queen Elizabeth II of the U.K. apparently has several signals involving the way she holds her handbag which she uses to signal her staff when she wants to get out of a conversation with someone (for example).
- Also during World War II, the British government had spies working in occupied Europe, and gave them codes to indicate if they had been captured by the Germans and forced to send bogus data back. Unfortunately, several captured operators would be reminded by their British handlers "that's your duress code, don't use it unless you've been captured" and subsequently be shot by their German captors. Strangely, the German intelligence services never seemed to have thought of doing the same with their own agents, all of whom were captured within hours of being landed in Britain and being offered a choice between turning and death.
- Hanging the Union Flag upside down is widely believed to be a signal of distress (or an insult); if so, it's a very subtle one, as few people (even in Britain) are aware of how to hang it correctly, or would notice the difference. This is more in Urban Legend territory.