Joel: The spotted cuckoo bird is flying backwards...
Crow: It's a cold day for pontooning.
Speaking in code. Not only spies, but anyone in a secret-ish organization having a reasons to be discreet — like La Résistance
with code phrases, a Man In Black
using metaphor, a hit squad
, etc. — might do this. A form of Cryptic Conversation
Usually one of these three:
- Key words, or replacing people's names with common items, much like Double Speak, but can be less vague. This one is often parodied by the people speaking in complete non-sequiturs.
- A Metaphor, also known as "Open Code", similar to Unusual Euphemism and Trouble Entendre, with words and themes replacing the business of the organization, like the following:
The Gardener: My garden is full of weeds this year, the herbicide isn't working.
The Exterminator: Perhaps you should use a shear to clip the weeds.
The Gardener: Shears are too indiscriminate; besides, weeds must be pulled out by the roots. Perhaps you could come and pull them out, for the usual fee?
- Sign/Countersign, or completely unrelated phrases meant to look like a casual conversation.
They said it would rain tomorrow. The Exterminator:
You can't trust the weatherman, not in the summer. Agent D:
It's good it will be autumn soon, then. The Exterminator:
) It's good it will be fall
Despite (or perhaps because of) the randomness of these kinds of spy speak, a completely unrelated civilian
will get embroiled
in whatever the plot is by randomly getting the code words, Sign Countersign, or metaphor right. Alternatively, a character might point out that they're doing this under unnecessary circumstances, and the codeword usage is just pointless. Another typical parody/subversion is to have the apparent Spy Speak turn out to be literally true
, generating confusion. Might rely heavily on birds and flying.
Subtrope to Double Meaning
. See also The Password Is Always Swordfish
, Attack Pattern Alpha
, Military Alphabet
, Talking through Technique
and Reporting Names
. May result in Mistaken for Badass
open/close all folders
- In a Priceline commercial William Shatner and a prospective customer exchange Sign/Countersign phrases.
Customer: The eagle flies at dawn.
Shatner: The monkey eats custard.
- In this ad for The World Is Not Enough and BMW, two men exchange the following Sign/Countersign, subtitled with ad copy for BMW:
"Does the red robin crow at dusk?"
"Yes, but only in the shade of the big elk tree."
"If it's raining in Brussels..."
"It must be snowing in Spain."
- Then a third man breaks in with "The circus elephant has lost its way," which puzzles the first two men right up to the point where they see the actual circus elephant.
Anime & Manga
- Death Note
- An ad hoc variant when Matsuda is accosted by the Yotsuba group. This (slightly paraphrased) conversation takes place over mobile phones:
L: Hey man, wanna go out drinking tonight?
Matsuda: Uh, sorry, I can't tonight.
L: What? Don't tell me your wallet's in trouble again?
Matsuda: Yeah, that's it, I'm in big trouble with money right now.
- This, naturally, meant he was in trouble.
- More subtle version: Light calls Mikami, and manages to give him very careful directions as to how to act as the latest Kira... without ever tipping off his dinner partner.
- Fullmetal Alchemist
- Full Metal Panic!! The Second Raid. During briefing, one soldier mentions the "Cretan paradox" when a Cretan (someone from the island of Crete) says that all Cretans are liars. When Mithril realizes during a mission that they got an information leak, Kalinin invokes this conversation, secretly telling the team that they are about to confuse the enemy by him giving orders and the team doing the exact opposite. It works.
- Higurashi no Naku Koro ni: Local Creepy Child Rika likes to discuss the activities of "cats" that are quite prone to doing things.
- The first episode of Cowboy Bebop has the Red Eye/Bloody Eye dealers speaking in code to identify themselves as buyers and sellers. Makes a brief return in a later episode when Gren and Vicious speak in code to arrange a meeting point for their deal. Spike, who is trying to listen in, is unable to tell where they'll be and has to wait until the deal goes sour and stuff starts blowing up before he can find them.
Asimov: I'll have a beer.
Asimov's Girlfriend: And I'll have a Bloody Mary, make it a double.
Bartender: I've got the vodka, but I'm all out of tomato juice.
Asimov: I'm sure there's one can in the back. (they both go to the back room to talk terms)
- Bill Bailey claims dentists talk in Spy Speak to avoid terrifying patients with what they actually mean ("Fetch me THE WIDOWMAKER!"). He joins in with "The Pheasant Has No Agenda".
- Used in the joke about the secret agent whose contact is living in one of those Welsh villages where lots of people have the same surname, so they are distinguished by referring to their occupation. The secret agent has just got off the train and is speaking to the station master:
Agent: Where can I find Mr. Jones?
Station Master: Ah, well, there are lots of Joneses here, you see. There's Jones the Milk, Jones the Post, Jones the Baker — why, my name is Jones!
Agent: "The last swallow of summer is winging his way over the horizon!"
Station Master: Ah, it's Jones the Spy you want!
- A similar skit was performed on the album "You Don't have to be Jewish". The punchline was, "Oh you want Moscowitz the spy... top floor on the left."
- A comic about a spy contained these lines:
Spy: Shhh! My aunt has a sharp-witted ranger!
Guy with sunglasses: Are you crazy or what??
- Parodied in The Order of the Stick prequel book Start of Darkness.
Right-Eye: The chimera has three sets of teeth.
Eugene: ...I'm sorry?
Right-Eye: I said, "The chimera has three sets of teeth."
Eugene: Uh, well, I suppose it must take a long time for them to floss, then.
Eugene: I'm just saying, they probably get quite a bit of food stuck in between.
Right-Eye: I don't think you heard me. I said, "The chimera—
Eugene: Yes, yes, I heard you just fine. It simply doesn't make any more sense upon repetition. I mean, I am an important wizard. I don't have time to sit around a strange tavern on a rainy afternoon and discuss the assorted dental endowments of magical beasts. Take your bizarre oral fixation somewhere else before you scare off the guy who asked me to meet him here.
Right-Eye: Look, I can see the letter I sent you from over here. Read the part right after where I wrote, "You will know me when I say the phrase, 'The chimera has three sets of teeth.'"
Eugene: Ummm... "Then you will verify your identity by saying, 'Then its bite is thrice as deadly.'"
Right-Eye: Thank you! Geez! Was that so hard?
Eugene: "Thrice." Interesting word choice.
Right-Eye: Just let it drop.
- In one Josie And The Pussy Cats story, Melody is spouting 'mixed-up maxims', and one just happens to be the pass-phrase for a covert operation. A foreign spy mistakes her for another operative, and gives her a secret file hidden in a stuffed animal. Needless to say, when the spy's real contact comes by, things get sticky...
- In Knights of the Dinner Table, players will occasionally use "player advantage codes" to communicate with each other without the game master knowing (e.g. when one player has important information that his character shouldn't be able to pass along to the rest of the party). The technique lost it effectiveness as game masters got wise to it.
- Bella of Luminosity makes these up sometimes, since she doesn't want anyone to die.
"Remember I told you about Billy? It's him and his son Jacob. I'm going to stay and be sociable, and make sure they eat a nice dinner. I might not be over today at all. So please don't be alarmed and come wondering what the holdup is." Please don't come and activate the wolves, I meant, and hoped he'd understand.
- Calvin and Hobbes do this while initiating Operation Spy on the Slimy Girl in Calvin & Hobbes: The Series
- In The Art Of Drowning L and Watari use the keyword variety-which Light later unwittingly uses when pretending to be L:
I would rather avoid Watari all together, but if there is a chance that he is not in league with Roger
, then I would prefer him by my side. I'm just not looking forward to the interrogation. Light:
Well, at least he'll bring tea and scones. L:
Erm, I told the boys to tell him to bring tea and scones? So he'd know it was really you? Because you tell him that a lot? L:
You told him to come armed to the teeth and prepared to kill. Light:
I — what? I did?
- In the Pony POV Series, Commander Bond has a spell that makes conversations he wants to keep private sound like they're entirely in this to whoever's trying to listen in.
- Atlas Strongest Tournament: The trope is lampshaded during a conversation between Princess Luna and her spy among the changelings who may or may not have been replaced by an actual changeling.
Spy: The princess will save the dragon, the apples are being sorted, and... do we really have to talk like this?
Luna: These are standard espionage codes. One must do things properly.
- In Office Politics L and Raito use Spy Speak to talk about their relationship troubles:
L has used his extensive knowledge of cryptology to code in things like "Perhaps we should reconsider our relationship and consider reapplying generous amounts of sex in the butt." (Though it frustrated him greatly, even L's awesome mind could not properly work the semantics of forensic pathology and the word "fucking" together.)
Raito raises one fine, fine brow at L when L says this, and replies, "On the other hand, perhaps the coroner wasn't thorough enough in his external examination—needle-punctures can be wildly difficult to locate and I have not yet abandoned the idea that some of these deaths could have been caused by the application of excessive insulin. Local law enforcement has, after all, been writing them off too easily on Kira."
After Raito has left the room, L says, "That was completely uncalled for."
- In Ultra Fast Pony, Twilight tries to use a code phrase... only to find that the person who gave her the original code was just messing with her.
Twilight: The dawn cow barks at the lonely sponge on a midsummer's eve.
Mrs. Cake: Damn it all, what are you talking about, girl?
Films — Animation
- Done in Cars 2 between Holly Shiftwell and Mater — she identifies Mater as a fellow spy when he correctly answers obscure questions about the air cooling used by Volkswagen engines.
Films — Live-Action
- In The Longest Day, the Free French use the phrase Jean had a long moustache as the signal for "The invasion will come tomorrow, the Resistance shall begin with the preparations" (probably Truth in Television). Cue the mayor of Colleville (André Bourvil) dancing around the radio and shouting "Jean had a long moustache... Jean had a long moustache!", before running outside to blow up some telephone lines. In fact, those radio transmissions were full of dozens of messages like that every night. Some of them were communiques to various resistance cells, and others were sheer gibberish sent over the airwaves to drive any Germans listening on that frequency nuts.
- Almost every dialogue in The Limits of Control is made about this trope.
- Parodied in The Ipcress File. At the beginning of the movie Harry's spying on a building and reads out an innocuous sounding list, which we automatically assume is code — but it isn't, and what he's watching really is that innocuous.
- In Léon a.k.a. The Professional, he calls himself a "Cleaner", instead of "Assassin" or "Hitman". So someone might ask him to "clean" someone, rather than "kill" them. That's actually a Shout-Out to Nikita, where Jean Reno played the "cleaner" i.e. a character who specialized in destroying the evidence and disposing of bodies after the hit.
- Partially parodied in The Saint:
Simon: To Spider: You've got the recipe, where's my dough?
Tretiak: To Human Fly: Recipe incomplete. Cake won't rise. Hence, no dough.
- James Bond does a lot of this.
- In For Your Eyes Only, meeting a contact at a ski resort, they apparently comment on the quality of the piste in comparison to other resorts.
- From Russia with Love:
Agent A: Can I borrow a match?
Agent B: I use a lighter.
Agent A: That's better still.
Agent B: Until they go wrong.
- Half-parodied in GoldenEye:
Bond: In London, April's a Spring month.
Jack Wade: Oh yeah? And what are you, the weatherman? I mean, for crying out loud... another stiff-ass Brit, with your secret codes and your passwords. One of these days you guys are gonna learn just to drop it.
(Bond then holds him at gunpoint until he gives the correct response before introducing himself)
- A straight example in Diamonds Are Forever. When Tiffany Case arrives at the circus to pick up the diamonds, the CIA agent alerts everyone.
Agent: This is Quarterback. Operation Passover, commence. Quarterback to Tight End. Operation Passover, commence.
- Lampshaded in The World Is Not Enough:
Christmas Jones: Do you wanna put that in English for those of us who don't speak spy?
- Parodied in Hot Shots! Part Deux. The radio controller is trying to warn the good guys that enemies are about to attack, using phrases like "The vultures are circling the carcass", "The pit bull is out of the cage", "The Crips are raiding the liquor store". The guy on the other end has no idea what he's talking about. The first phrase used is "Indians on the warpath in your area." This line (and the three prior lines) are a Shout-Out to a similar scene in The Guns of Navarone which used almost identical dialogue (see below).
- The Guns of Navarone. During radio communication, the team's command base uses coded language to send information.
"High Flight reports Indians on warpath in your territory." [Aerial reconnaissance has seen German naval units in your vicinity.]
- The Andromeda Strain (1971). Dr. Charles Dutton uses Type 3 to enter Project Wildfire.
Dutton: Howdy Doody.
Guard: You got the time?
Dutton: My watch stopped at 11:46.
Guard: Darn shame.
Dutton: Must be the heat.
- Used in the Bourne Ultimatum. It is revealed that the closing lines to the previous movie were in fact impromptu Spy Speak, and that Bourne had somehow deduced the exact meaning of the code without knowing anything about the place being talked about. The eavesdropping villains take a long time to figure it out in spite of actually knowing the secret already.
- Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan had a variant on this. Spock and Kirk, discussing repair estimates to the Enterprise, used a code that substituted days for hours. This made Khan (who was eavesdropping on the conversation) believe Kirk's ship was hopelessly crippled.
- In the epic clown movie Shakes the Clown, evil clown Binky is informed of his successful drug purchase by one of his henchmen with, "The dolphins are in the jacuzzi."
- Jumpin Jack Flash "Dogs barking. Can't fly without umbrella."
- Clear and Present Danger: Spy Speak pervades the film. "Coffee" means cocaine. The special forces soldiers refer to planting a bomb and detonating it as "The chicken is in the pot." — "Cook it." respectively. And so on by many characters. The President starts the whole mess with "The course of action I'd suggest is a course of action I can't suggest." This contrasts his Title Drop in the same scene, and his hypocrisy is called out later in the film.
Cutter: He [the president] can't be clear when clarity is exactly what he wants to avoid.
- A scene like this happened in Casino.
- The Shadow.
"The sun is shining..."
"but the ice is slippery."
- Top Secret!
"Know any good white basketball players?"
"There ARE no good white basketball players."
"Who do you favor in the Virginia Slims Tournament?"
"In women's tennis, I always root against the heterosexual."
- Parodied in The Man Who Knew Too Little, where it is a case of One Dialogue, Two Conversations. The British spymaster asks the protagonist whether the girl was "taken to the bathroom" and "flushed" (code for assassination and disposal of the body), while the protagonist (who doesn't know that he has been mistaken for a spy) fails to recognize this as code. He informs the spymaster that "She went to the loo... by herself", which the spymaster erroneously interprets as meaning "suicide".
- Parodied in International Lady, when British agent Reggie Oliver (Basil Rathbone) does not understand the American slang used by FBI agents:
Hanley: This is Rah-Rah Sewell, one of our best fullbacks. Learning to be a dick. Inspector Oliver, Scotland Yard.
Sewell: Scotland Yard — Gee, that sort of sends me wacky. Well, the Brain said PDQ. Better breeze in.
Oliver: ... He talks in code, doesn't he?
- In one of The Pink Panther movies, Inspector Clouseau asks Chief Inspector Dreyfus what his code name is. The Chief Inspector sputters out that he doesn't have one. Inspector Clouseau, satisfied, replies that only the REAL Chief Inspector Dreyfus would know he doesn't have a code name.
- Quest Of The Delta Knights: The Delta Knights use Sign/Countersign to identify each other.
- In Nick Fury, the TV movie:
Nick Fury: Beauty is trust and trust is beauty. That's all ye on this Earth know and all ye need to know.
Gail Runciter: Is that part of the recognition code?
Nick Fury: No, I just felt like saying it.
- Ronin is full of this, as per the opening exchange between Vincent and Sam:
Sam: So, are you labor or management?
Vincent: If I was management, I would not offer you a cigarette!
- No surprise that David Mamet co-wrote the screenplay.
- In Captain America: The First Avenger, when Peggy takes Steve to the secret military lab, she has a casual conversation with an elderly lady about the weather.
- Also used in the 1990 film, but they talk about the food.
- In A Song Is Born, Hobart Frisbee uses his newfound grasp of hep cat language to communicate his escape plan to the musicians near the end.
- Brilliantly parodied in the Discworld book, Guards! Guards!: a secret cultist goes through a length of sign countersign for a password, only to find that he's talking to a different secret cult, when he gets some of it confused.
"Surely the cagéd whale knows nothing of the mighty depths."
"Nope, bean soup it is."
- Subverted in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, where the two men discussing wizards, witches, Quidditch and the Ministry of Magic are suspected of using code, but actually mean exactly what they say. (Actually assigning the terms "Muggles", "Wizards", and "Ministry" a one-to-one relationship with gangs or government branches yields some really convoluted politics.)
- Also parodied in John Dies at the End:
"Dave? This is John. Your pimp says bring the crack shipment tonight, or he'll be forced to stick you. Meet him where we buried the Korean whore. The one without the goatee."
That was code. It meant "Come to my place as soon as you can, it's important." Code, you know, in case the phone was bugged.
"John, it's three in the—"
"—Oh, and don't forget, tomorrow is the day we kill the President."
He was gone. That last part was code for, "Stop and pick me up some cigarettes on the way."
- There's a Larry Niven story of humanity's first contact with aliens, when the Kzin attack the "unarmed" starship Angel's Pencil. Having leaked the news out of ARM HQ, the protagonists on Earth are discussing this: "So, you think Angel sliced the bread with the pencil?" says one, while thinking that it's difficult to communicate when you're making up your code as you go.
- Dave Barry does this when his directions to a point of interest in Sweden ends with "tell the man standing on the corner that the oyster owns a fine wristwatch. He'll know what to do."
- In one of The Wheel of Time books, Taim sends Rand a note that reads, "I picked that bush myself. A small bush, and thorny, but a good number of berries nonetheless." It's an extended metaphor. The "bush" is the Two Rivers, the backwater region where Rand grew up. "Berries" are men with the potential to channel. "Small" and "thorny" mean exactly what they look like.
- In The Plant That Ate Dirty Socks, Norman, realizing the weirdness of his home situation, comes up with the idea of using code words such as "ice cream" for "sock", "chocolate" for "dirty", "cat" for "plant", etc. A nosy girl overhears this and asks him about why his cats eat so much ice cream.
- Variant #1 happens from time to time in Animorphs, usually over the phone.
- V.F.D. in A Series of Unfortunate Events uses the "sign/countersign" form for "volunteers" to identify each other; for instance, "I'm sorry, I didn't realize this was a sad occasion" is answered with "The world is quiet here."
- John le Carré books are full of this. Particularly The Quest for Karla.
- The Tim Powers novel Declare involves lots of code phrases and recognition exchanges, some of which turn out to have occult significance.
- Vernor Vinge's short story Run Bookworm Run takes this to an extreme:
Super-intelligent chimpanzee: Why does the goodwife like Dutch Elm Disease for tea?
Ordinary-looking section of wall: I don't know, I just work here.
Super-intelligent chimpanzee: Well find out before her husband does.
- This is repeated over thousands of miles of such walls, each with different codes.
- Kim from Kipling has an actually smart one. You must stop before a few specific words. You must insert those words into innocent small talk, then pause before the word. Your partner must do the same with another word. "It was a nice wedding. The bride had that beautiful necklace with the great... turquoise." "Oh, how expensive. How was the food? Was there... tarkeean?"
- In the Robert A. Heinlein short story "Methuselah's Children", the Howard Families use this identification routine:
"Life is short."
"But the years are long."
"Not 'While the Evil Days Come Not.'"
- Spoofed in Rebel Dream. The Insiders don't actually use sign/countersign methods, preferring to stick to known members and use Jedi and YVH droids to screen for infiltrators. This doesn't stop Kell from making up his own.
"No countersign. What kind of holodrama is this, anyway?"
- In Freakonomics, the author tells how the Ku Klux Klan used this. A klansman who went to another city and was looking for other klansmen (in a bar, for example) would ask people "Do you know a Mr Ayak?" (=Are You A Klansman?) The answer he expected would be "Yes, and I also know a Mr Akai." (= A Klansman Am I.) They also used many codewords by simply substituting Kl at the beginning of words, like Kloran (from Quran) for their ritual book. Which tended to sound pretty silly.
- In the Lord Peter Wimsey mystery Murder Must Advertise, the drug ring that Charles Parker is investigating uses "Nutrax for nerves" as a password. It can be written on a note, worked into casual conversation or printed on a book or newspaper you are carrying — doesn't matter. Give the password in any form, and they'll hand you a package of drugs. This gets a minor character in trouble halfway through the book, as he unwittingly gives the password and gets handed half a pound of high-class cocaine without realizing it.
- The Dark Tower: The gang of Greys that kidnap Jake in The Waste Lands use a sign-countersign kind of password for entering their hideout.
- Subverted in, of all places, the Conan the Barbarian novel "Hour of the Dragon". Conan attempts to sneak into a Stygian temple disguised as a pilgrim, but realizes that the pilgrims must give a secret hand signal to the temple guard to gain entrance. Upon realizing this, Conan, being Conan, just kills the guard and walks in anyway.
- In the first book of Detectives in Togas, the boy Rufus is in prison and about to be executed, but manages to send a strange message to the others: "Rip off the red wolf's sheep's clothing!" He's talking about the "seer" Lukos (Greek for "wolf"), whose name is written in red on his house, who's the Big Bad and framed Rufus. Lukos is really the bald ex-consul Tellus, who wears a wig when playing Lukos.
- Whenever Harry Dresden has to call the Wardens (which, at that point, he's already in deep shit), he has to do several sign-countersign routines in quick succession for the Wardens to confirm that it is, in fact, Harry. Despite realizing the necessity of it all, it still bugs the crap out of him.
- A brief exchange shows up in the Ryan Verse book Clear and Present Danger
Agent: It may rain today.
CIA: If so, I have a coat.
Agent: A cold rain, perhaps.
CIA: The coat has a liner.
- The agent then remarks that it actually is supposed to rain later, complimenting whoever it was that came up with that code.
- In The Belgariad, the Nadrak Yarblek gets into the royal palace in Boktor by telling a member of the Drasnian Intelligence that "the salmon is running late". The second time he uses this phrase, the Drasnian spy remarks to the Queen that he "takes a very keen interest in the salmon runs".
- The Star Trek novel "Enemy Unseen" dealt with an murderous imposter who could mimic any of the crew. In order to protect their key witness, Captain Kirk gives the security guards protecting the witness orders to demand anyone (including himself) who wishes to see the "prisoner" respond to the statement "'Tis a wee bit early for playing poker, is it not sir?" with the answer "It's later than you think." Anyone who doesn't respond immediately is to be stunned and taken into custody.
- In Michael Innes' From London Far the main character absently quoted a line or two of verse in a tobacconist's. When the clerk gave him a funny look he said simply "London: a Poem." and the clerk, who thought he'd said "London's goin'," replied "Rotterdam's gone" and allowed him entry to what turned out to be a base of operations for some rather high-class art smugglers/thieves.
- Lampshaded in Manning Coles' Drink to Yesterday where agent Tommy Hambledon remarked to the much younger and more naive Michael Kingston/Bill Saunders:
"...Do get out of your head these ideas about elaborate plans which are so popular in fiction. You know: At eight forty-four and one half precisely you will walk past the automatic weighing-machine on the down platform, and a man in a pale-blue Homburg hat will pass you and murmur either 'Catfish,' 'Plaice' or 'Cod,' or 'Salmon.' 'Catfish' means the courier is a large savage man armed to the teeth who never sleeps, with an escort of eight of the Prussian Guard so alert that they take it in turns to breathe. That's to let you know it's going to be a little bit difficult. 'Plaice' means that he will have a girl friend with him, so look out for squalls. That's rather a good one, pass the beer. 'Cod' means that, though he travels alone, he is a dangerous homicidal maniac who is quite sane till anybody touches his luggage, when a violent complex is suddenly released and he is possessed with a passion for peritoneotomy—"
"What Jack the Ripper did. 'Salmon' means that he is a weak little man suffering from incipient sleeping-sickness. Salmon is never served up on our job..."
- In The Restoration Game by Ken MacLeod, this is how Ross Stewart exchanges briefcases with his Krassnian contact; a brief sign/countersign about cigarettes followed by a complete non sequitur just to be on the safe side.
- In Peter Benchley's Q Clearance, a Soviet spy in Washington DC is supposed to receive a package from an courier. He and his handler try to come up with the appropriate Spy Speak to prove his bona fides. The spy considers the handler's dialog suggestion impossibly polite for the urban neighborhood:
Teal: Your contact is in a phone booth on the corner.
Pym: OK, I'll go get the package from him.
Teal: Wait! How will he know it's you?
Pym: I'll tell him who I am and ask for it.
Teal: No, no! Think, man! Craft!... you say, "Is this phone out of order?" He'll say, "No, but I'm waiting for a call." You say, "I'll find another phone then."
Pym: (thinking) In this neighborhood? It'll be more like "Is this phone broke?" "The fuck's it to you?" "I gotta make a fuckin' call." "You touch that fuckin' phone, I'll break all your fuckin' fingers."
- Inverted in Polish s-f novel 'Paradise, the World in Orbit' by Janusz Zajdel. The novel depicts the totalitarian state where citizens use 'koalang' (associative-allusive language) to mask anything that might be considered subversive by the secret police, especially when speaking in public, for example:
Man: The gray angel entered my dreams uncannily (Policeman infiltrated my home thinking I'm asleep)
Girl: Has emptiness filled the shard of space? (Did he take something?)
Man: Though a ferret past in the time extended, my hand's voice curtain was left untouched. But hyena's longing still strong remain. (Even though he was searching for a long time, he didn't find my communication jammer. But it's likely the bastard will return soon).
- Several variations on these types of code show up in Timothy Zahn's Star Wars novels, most prominently in The Thrawn Trilogy. In one case, Han and Leia are discussing Admiral Ackbar's political situation, disguising it by talking about his family life (although it's not perfect since, as Han points out, it was an improvised code and they really ought to have set it up in advance). In the annotated edition, Zahn relates how this was inspired by a discussion he himself had with a few friends while first writing the novel. In the middle of a restaurant full of Star Wars fans, and under strict orders not to reveal that he was working on a new novel, he was forced to talk around the identities of his characters (such as using "Brother" and "Sister" for Luke and Leia).
- Another version, in the same novel, involves an open comm channel between the Falcon and some escort starfighters. Han orders the pilots to use the Cracken Twist, which causes them to move into a new escort formation, then transmits some rendezvous coordinates. He then explains to Leia that the formation is just window dressing; the "Cracken Twist" is really an instruction to transpose the coordinates to reach their real destination.
- In Vision of the Future Han Solo, suspecting that his communications were being monitored by Imperial ships, sent a message to Lando Calrissian to rendezvous with him "two systems rimward from where you had no choice". In other words, two systems towards the galactic rim from Bespin, where Lando was forced to hand Han and Leia over to Vader. (Alluding to his line, "Sorry, Han, but I had no choice.") Later in the same novel, General bel Iblis issues a recall order to two Rogue Squadron pilots (who are operating anonymously) reading simply "This is father. All is forgiven; come home at once."
- In Star Trek: Cold Equations, Thot Raas of the Breen has this to say in a transmission to his superior: ‘At sunset, the weevil digs in the grain. Raptors circle the hollow. The steed stands in the forest. The farmer must ring the bell before dark.’
- In the second book of The Babysitters Club, the girls are worried about the possibility of a crook from the news (or any crook for that matter) showing up while they're on the job and how suspicious it would look for them to call the police so they come up with the following: The girl who thinks there's something up calls up a friend and asks "Have you found my red ribbon?" The person receiving the call responds "No; the blue one." which is followed by "Oh; that's okay." if the caller isn't sure there's trouble or "Now I'm gonna get it." to signifying "I'm in deep trouble; call the police ASAP!"
- Used quite a bit in 'Allo 'Allo!.
- Hogan's Heroes varies between speaking plainly and using code, apparently completely at random.
- Polish spy drama Cult Classic Stawka Większa Niż Życie has this famous exchange: "The best chestnuts are [to be found] on Pigalle Square." "Susan likes them only in the autumn."
- Many Mission: Impossible episodes began with one of these. Jim Phelps would go somewhere and have an innocuous conversation. When he would insist on a detail, they took him to the self-destructing tape.
- Monty Python's Flying Circus
- In a sketch, a man goes into a bookshop and the owner keeps talking to him like this.
- Another Python sketch features a trio of KGB agents who get confused by their own code:
Bag: Who's giving the orders round here?
Grip: I am. I'm senior to you.
Bag: No, you're not. You're a greengrocer, I'm an insurance salesman.
Grip: Greengrocers are senior to insurance salesman.
Bag: No they're not!
Wallet: Cool it. I'm an ice-cream salesman and I am senior to both of you.
Bag: You're an ice-cream salesman? I thought you were a veterinarian.
Wallet: I got promoted. Let's go.
- Trigger Happy TV
- Law & Order and other shows dealing with cops trying to catch Mafia dons run into Variant #1 a lot: the don orders a hit, the cops and DAs argue that it means murder-for-hire, and the defense attorney plaintively says "He was just asking about an apartment!" (Or whatever the on-the-face conversation was.)
- Parodied in the series Adderly: supervisor Greenspan, convinced his office is bugged, demands that his staff speak entirely in convoluted code-phrases (even when discussing whether they want sugar in their coffee). Adderly replies with an annoyed, "Dead parrots rarely sing."; Greenspan pulls out his code book and laboriously translates this, word by word, to mean, "This... conversation... is... ridiculous."
- Parodied on the game show Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego??. In one type of clue, this girl spy would tell Greg something that sounds like code, but it's not: it's expanded to be the clue pointing to the next location.
- L.A. Law: Douglas Brackman is ordering sushi for the first time and asks the beautiful woman sitting next to him for advice, using terms from the menu such as "hand roll." She's an undercover vice cop and arrests him for solicitation of prostitution — dropping the charges in great embarrassment when shown the menu.
- Burn Notice
- Mob-specific Spy Speak is a fixture on The Sopranos.
- For instance, "we're bringing in some tailors from Sicily to do the job, why don't you see about getting them some scissors."
- Also lampshaded, subverted, and parodied to hell and back at various points.
Anthony Infante: Listen, as far as that thing goes... the coffee with the chicory...
Johnny Sack: The fuck is that?
Anthony Infante: Oh shit. I suck at talkin' like this John, I'm sorry. Our friend with the stomach.
Johnny Sack: In town or near home?
Anthony Infante: Your neighbor. A.S...?
Johnny Sack: Yeah, all right. Just say "the thing I asked you to do." The coffee with the fuckin' chicory... Is he gonna get it for me?
Anthony Infante: Yes. Bad news is that he wants ten cups for himself. Not seven.
Johnny Sack: Alright. Done. Did you pick up the birthday cake for Gin with the marzipan flowers?
Anthony Infante: The... stuff behind the pool...?
Johnny Sack: No, an actual fuckin' cake! It's her birthday!
- The Benny Hill Show
- There's a sketch in which Hill is sitting on a park bench between two Spy Speakers. Faced with their "bizarre" code phrases, he would inject things like "I've got a lovely bunch of coconuts."
- That's not the only sketch making fun of Spy Speak; there's also an extended exchange in another spoof with a trio of spies in Istanbul exchanging increasingly nonsensical code phrases, some with Accidental Innuendo.
- Col. Flagg on Mash uses this in official communications, though also in regular speech. Favors the unrelated phrases variety.
Flagg: Alright, Corporal, read back what you've got.
Radar: Uh, yes sir. To the Far East Export Import Company, 27 Zapata Circle, Ti-joo-ana, Mexico.
Flagg: Right, go on.
Radar: Yes sir. Mary had a little lamb. Stop. My dog has fleas. Stop.
Flagg: Good, there's a bit more. Mairzy doats and dozey doats, and I'll be home for Christmas. Got that?
Radar: Uh... in just a moment, sir. Uh, okay.
Flagg: Sign it: Your loving son, Queen Victoria.
- Parodied in the Gilmore Girls episode "The Third Lorelai".
Lorelai: (answering the phone) Independence Inn.
Emily: I need the hat rack.
Lorelai: (mysteriously) The fish flies at night!
Lorelai: I don't know. Who is this?
- Happened at least once on Criminal Minds. Fortunately the team genius was the person they needed to contact.
- In "All In", Wilson parodies this when House phones him while playing cards.
House: Keep your answers short and discreet. Is Cuddy still playing?
Wilson: The chicken is still in Picadilly Square.
- Played (somewhat) straighter in "The Down Low" where House gets around a drug dealer's reluctance to talk about his cocaine business by referring to the product as "Culottes".
House: So do you cut the culottes yourself or do they get cut by the individual tailors on the street?
- Get Smart
- Babylon 5
- Kosh speaks entirely in Spy Speak, which frustrates the humans (including the audience) to no end. At one point, Sheridan is being mentored by Kosh. Ivanova quips that it must be working, because he's starting to sound like a Vorlon. There is also one conversation which consisted entirely of Ice Cream Koans. When the frustrated telepath Talia Winters remarks that the conversation was entirely pointless (and there was nothing going on with telepathy either), Kosh replies: "Listen to the music, not the song".
- From time to time, various characters on the show find themselves discussing issues with various forms of Cryptic Conversation or Trust Passwords. At one point, Garibaldi is given a task not revealed to the audience and told that, when he has completed it, he and Sheridan will Talk About the Weather. note
- In the fourth season, one of the characters has snuck to Mars to meet up with La Résistance, and sends back a status report entirely in code phrases. Lampshaded by the leader of La Résistance who calls it "Nice and cryptic."
- A Bit of Fry and Laurie has a sketch in which "Good morning" is used as Spy Speak. It doesn't work very well.
- Also hilariously Averted in the "Tony and Control" sketches, which feature two high ranking intelligence officials who speak in simple naive terms that you could almost use if talking to a three-year-old.
- In The Sandbaggers, whenever anyone is reporting in from the field, the conversations are always heavily couched in metaphor. On the other hand, the speech avoids the sign/countersign form, and the "disguise" is a light one — usually something along the lines of a manager speaking to his salesmen in the field. Apart from the true nature of their "business," the roles are in fact strongly analogous.
- Paul Merton is fond of this trope. When A Rare Sentence comes up on Have I Got News for You, he will often say it sounds like something spies would use as code. And his TV show had a sketch where the Reveal Shot at the end showed that the pond where the two spies were feeding ducks as they had their cryptic conversation was entirely surrounded by other guys in trench coats and fedoras doing the same thing.
- Parodied in a Not the Nine O'Clock News sketch where it turned out that only one of the men involved was a spy; the other was cruising. ("Spy? Spy? No boyfriend of mine goes out to work!")
- This Armstrong and Miller sketch was set in a tanning salon, which used far too obvious Spy Speak, such as "I'd like to use a sunbed" and "Do you do spray tanning" as their codewords, leading to some very confused people.
- In an early Family Ties episode, Elyse's brother Ned (played by Tom Hanks), a high-ranking corporate exec, embezzled funds from his company in order to sabotage a company closure that would put hundreds of people out of business. At one point he answered the phone, "The falcon has landed. The fat man walks alone. Repeat: The falcon has landed. The fat man walks alone."
- Attempted near the end of Green Wing when Joanna and Statham are fleeing the police.
Boyce: The weasel is still in its cage. The weasel is still in its cage... The weasel is out of the cage! The weasel is out of the cage! Fly, pelicans! Go, go - The weasel is returning to the cage! The weasel is returning to the cage, so pelicans to the kitchen! Pelicans, go to the kitchen. Go to the kitchen! The kitchen! The bush! The kitchen is the bush!
- The Palace: In the first episode, Superintendent Bayfield informs Prince Richard of his father's passing with the words "tower bridge." Presumably they settled on the signal long ago in case the news needed to be broken in a public location, such as the nightclub bathroom where the scene occurs.
In Real Life, all the senior royal's funerals are planned well in advance, as befits such a complicated ceremony. To make it easier to talk about, each funeral is assigned the name of a bridge as a code name. The Queen Mother's was called "Tay Bridge" after a bridge in her Scottish homeland. The Sovereign's funeral is always code-named "Tower Bridge"
- Neds Declassified School Survival Guide:
Quirley: (knocks) The weasel runs at midnight.
- Dragnet has this in episodes that usually involve illegal bookmaking operations — one set of codes for placing bets, and another for paying off winners.
- Supernatural: Sam and Dean have the codephrase "Funky Town"; Dean uses this to tell Sam he's in trouble and has a gun pointed at him.
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer
- Xander sends Willow a text message in code that either means he's about to score or he's being attacked by a demon; with Xander's luck, they realize it has to be the latter.
- Agents of the covert military demon-fighting unit The Initiative speak this way, causing the Scoobies to dub it "Riley Speak" (after Buffy's Initiative boyfriend Riley Finn) whenever they such codes themselves as opposed to their usual Buffy Speak.
- On The Amazing Race, one challenge taking place in Washington, D.C. had the racers exchanging a briefcase with a spy after exchanging code phrases. Apparently, the producers liked it because they did it again in a later season.
- An early episode of Benson had a revolutionary attempt to contact another at a party using this method. However, he talks to Benson by mistake and Benson is not in on the code.
Revolutionary: The road has many turns.
Revolutionary: The road has many turns.
Benson: Well, drive carefully.
- In How I Met Your Mother, Ted uses this to discreetly refer to an art-school tryout that Lily doesn't want Marshall to know about (because attending the school would conflict with their wedding).
So Lil, did you, uh... get the milk? Lily:
) Yeah... yeah, I got it. Ted:
You think you might want to... drink
the milk? Lily:
) Nope, I'm good. I don't need any milk. Marshall:
Look guys, I know milk is important.
It's got vitamin A, vitamin D... it's a great way to start the morning, but Ted just had a huge date! How'd it go, dude?
- An old Saturday Night Live sketch parodied WWII spy movies, using phrases like "Cats are nothing more than effeminate dogs."
- Parodied in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., episode 3:
Sky: Skipper to Bravo. I got eyes on Top Dog. The Eagle is landing.
Simmons: What are you doing?
Sky: Uh, sorry. I ... I dunno. I see Quinn, I'm gonna go talk to him.
- Played straight in "T.A.H.I.T.I.". When the team arrives at the Guest House facility, the guards greet them with "How was the ride from Istanbul?" None of them know the countersign, it's not in any of SHIELD's databases, and the guards refuse to say anything else. So, the team ends up having to fight their way in.
- In MAD, they did a send up of Mission: Impossible. When they did their spycraft stuff (getting the pictures and audio tape from a soda machine in the lobby of a movie theater), civilians looking at it always commented "That's the most suspicious thing I've ever seen."
- In an episode of The News Quiz Sandi Toksvig revealed that she had been approached by MI-5 at university (because she could fit in a suitcase). Bob Mills replied that it had always confused him when she said "And at the end of that round, the daffodils are blooming in Bucharest".
- The Secret of Monkey Island has the possible exchange:
Map salesman: Excuse me, do you have a cousin named Sven?
Guybrush: No, but I once had a barber named Dominique.
Map salesman: Close enough.
- Final Fantasy VIII. Player has to pick the correct response:
Man: Boy, the forests of Timber sure have ch-changed!
Squall: But the owls are still around.
- You can screw it up by saying "Moogles" or "Chocobos" instead of owls, but he recognizes you anyway... and your SeeD rank drops.
- Final Fantasy II plays this trope straight, requiring one to get a code from NPC A and give it to NPC B every now and then. This led to its Broken Base among fans.
- Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, as a prequel title, has one of the big questions of MGS2 as a call sign for Snake to identify himself to ADAM: "Who are the patriots?" The correct reply "The La Li Lu Le Lo" (which is like the XYZ in the Japanese letter system) also explains how that phrase became an alternate name for the Patriots. Since Snake and ADAM were among the founders of the organization they later called "The Patriots".
- One of the missions in No One Lives Forever involves exchanging these codephrases with several deep cover spies in East Germany. However, since Cate Archer, the player/protagonist, is a woman in the pre-feminist 1960's, all of the code phrases are crass come-ons from the spies and "witty" shootdowns from Cate. Most of them are at least apologetic about it.
- Christopher Mills uses this to get in contact with Garcian Smith in Killer7. Whenever he has a new assignment for him, he leaves a message on his answering machine, pretending to be calling around on behalf of the Republic Party (to prevent wire tapping), which serves as a signal for Harman to come see him at the overpass.
- In Leisure Suit Larry II, Larry's hapless My Hovercraft Is Full of Eels attempt to woo a Spanish-speaking woman happen to be the sign/countersign to land him a microfilm full of state secrets and the pursuit of KGB agents who were supposed to receive it.
Larry: My pencil is long, hard and yellow.
Secret Agent Woman: Thank God, I've been wanting to pass this on forever.
- In indie game Mount & Blade, you can sometimes get quests from your lords or king to receive spy's reports from enemy towns, in which you have to sneak past the border into the rival town, run around randomly reciting whatever phrase the lord or king had you memorize (from a list), looking like an idiot, until you find the spy.
- Pizza Tycoon
- You can buy weapons from the mob (to wreck your competitors' places). Naturally, this is illegal, so you can't just ask for them; if you do, the dealer sics the cops on you. Instead, you have to order ice cream... at thousands of dollars a "scoop".
- Same thing if you bribe the police. Openly offering a bribe will get you busted. Asking the cop if he "lost this wallet" on the other hand...
- In a Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas cutscene, you overhear government agent Mike Toreno's radio conversation:
Mike Toreno: Roger that, Big Monkey, I got a 13-6 fat vulture. Need to acquire a drowning baby. Over. In 15 by the moon. Break your heart. Over and out.
- In the Sam & Max Save the World episode "The Mole, The Mob, and the Meatball", they are told to say the phrase "Does the carpet match the drapes" to another agent. The response the other agent is supposed to give: "Why I never...!" and slap them on the cheek.
- Dragon Age
- Deus Ex
- In the original game, a random NPC in the Hell's Kitchen Clinic will ask JC "Who will help the widow's son?" and awkwardly excuse himself when JC doesn't understand. Though this is never stated in the game, the phrase is an old greeting and plea for assistance associated with the Freemasons.
- In one of the sidequests in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Jensen has to meet a contact to pick up an autopsy report. The contact, who is obviously a geek who is just doing things this way because he takes the whole thing too seriously, is supposed to be greeted by the code phrase "Life and death have their determined appointments." Jensen can play it professionally and use the phrase like he's supposed to. Alternately, (and hilariously) he can dismiss the whole thing saying "Something something, death and taxes. Confucius." Or he can just walk up to the contact and demand the information.
- Enter the Matrix: Niobe and Ghost's cryptic messages on airport pay-phones (something about "a bouquet of roses delivered at midnight").
- In Hotline Miami, the hitman protagonist gets his orders via seemingly mundane phone messages, like reminders of appointments or invitations all mentioning specific addresses. Obviously, his actual orders are to go to those addresses and kill everyone there.
- After each mission, the protagonist visits one of several businesses (such as a pizza place, a VHS store, a night club, etc) and always meets the same clerk who will make small talk and offer him something for free. Though it's never explained, a popular fan theory claims that this is a cover for the hitman's payment.
- Assassin's Creed: Initiates shows the Assassin Order sending e-mails like this, often using business terms which refer to the Templars and Abstergo as their main competitors or rivals. Adriano Maestranzi sends one e-mail to William Miles that states that one of their business associates had to leave Whistler, Canada because "he didn't want to be "buried" in work there, like his colleagues", and later follows it up by stating that their business rivals there were led by an old rival who "deceived" their CEO back in 2000.
- Indie video game Spy Party has one of the possible missions as this; the Spy must signal the Double Agent with a Key Word type of spy-speak. They can also fake signals in a conversation to throw off the Sniper, who can listen to conversations to try and determine if the spy is signaling anyone. The problem is that the signal is always "banana bread," which sticks out in the otherwise humdrum background party conversation like a sore thumb. This has lead many players to refer to any attempt (real or faked) to signal a Double Agent as "banana breading."
- A Flash Tub on Something Awful:
Ralph: The crow forgets his luggage!
- Ultra Fast Pony. In "Stay Tuned!", Rainbow Dash pranks Twilight Sparkle by telling her to give a sign/countersign at a dropoff. The sign is nonsense, and completely unnecessary.
Twilight: The dawn cow barks at the lonely sponge on a midsummer's eve.
Mrs. Cake: Damn it all, what are you talking about, girl?
- It's not really spies, but in Questionable Content, Faye is on the phone with her mother while she's having lunch with Marten. At the end of the conversation, she says, "The peaches are MOST DEFINITELY NOT RIPE. Goodbye." She then explains that it's their code word just in case Faye was taken against her will.
- General Protection Fault: Fooker receives a message in spy speak, but he replies in plain English.
- Shelly tries it in Scary Go Round, but it doesn't help that she's a bit of a Cloudcuckoolander:
Shelly: Red Rover, this is Danger Bunny! The owl is in his tree! Also, Danger Bunny needs a tetanus shot!
Mike: The what? "The scallop is entering the briny deep?" Shelley, I think the idea is that the code is pre-agreed.
- Peter Is the Wolf has an extensive code language for lycanthropes and informed Muggles.
- Mr. Verres of El Goonish Shive, being a government agent, gets to use this from time to time. Unfortunately, some things sound less cool in code.
- The Order of the Stick
- Done in Schlock Mercenary quite often, between teams of mercs/soldiers. Hilariously subverted here.
- Worm has a couple examples:
- First, in Chapter 5.5, Tattletale comes up with the following (which doubles as a source of Trust Passwords on a few occasions):
Tattletale: We'll be using a password system every time we check in, in case you're taken hostage and forced to answer a call. Two parts to it. The first part is simple, you give the other person the first letter of one of our names, the other person replies with the last. If it winds up being a longer night, move on to other people we know. [...] The second part is color based. When you're replying to a call, name an object that's a certain color. Think traffic lights. Green for go, everything is okay. Yellow for warning, if you aren't sure about things. Red for stop, need help. It lets you keep us informed without tipping off the capes that are with you.
- Second, in Chapter 20.1, we see that Skitter has developed an open code so that she and her minions can covertly exchange information via text message without raising any flags if someone sees their text messages.
- Avatar: The Last Airbender
- The Order of the White Lotus members use this.
Man: Who knocks at the guarded gate?
Iroh: One who has eaten the fruit and tasted its mysteries.
- Before this, they actually had a Spy Board Game which also started off with two lines of coded dialogue.
- Parodied in the Ed, Edd n Eddy episode "In Like Ed":
Eddy: The crow caws at midnight.
Rolf: And the cat sours the basil. Rolf would love to talk politics, but I must see your invitation!
- Also parodied in the Dilbert cartoon, where one of the requirements in the beefed-up corporate security was speaking in codes like this, among other things...
- The Flintstones "Slalom! Slalom!"
- Parodied/Subverted with two of Megabyte's cronies in ReBoot, who would confound and annoy their boss by speaking like this:
Binome: The jam is moldy in the kitchen, and the rolling rabbit gathers no moss.
Megabyte: What are you talking about?
- The Simpsons has the following exchange:
Grampa: Let me in you idiot!
Herman: Right you are. (opens door)
- Pete White in The Venture Bros.:
Hello, Goldilocks? This is Casper. Little Nemo
has fallen out of bed.
- In an episode of DuckTales, the protagonists visit a restaurant full of spies speaking Spy Speak.
- Family Guy, when Peter goes to a pet shop being used as a front by the mob, that they know is bugged by the feds.
Mob Customer: I'd like to buy a "bunny". (makes air quotes)
Mob Shopkeeper: What kind of "bunny"? A fully-automatic "bunny", or a hand-held "bunny"?
Mob Customer: The kind of "bunny" that would be best for shooting a guy in the head.
- Danny Phantom
Sam: Clueless-1, this is Goth-1. Over.
Danny: Goth-1, this is Clueless-1. Why am I Clueless-1?
Tucker: Tell him!
Sam: Shut it!
- Featured as a gag in an early episode of Rocky and Bullwinkle, where we see a conversation between two Pottsylvanians that turns out to be in spy-speak, translated by the narrator.
- X-Men: Evolution
Kurt: (looking at the girls through a pair of binoculars) Blue Boy to Tracker One, do you read me? The pigeons are leaving the roost. (camera pans down to see Scott sitting next to him)
Scott: Kurt, I'm right here. And why are you talking like that?
- One episode of Donkey Kong Country had Klump trying this. K.Rool was not impressed.
Lump: The fog was thick and dense.
K.Rool: Like your brain.
Klump: No no, I mean the air is thick with enemies! Code-talk! So no one will understand me.
K.Rool: That's a given on the best of days, Klump.
- Josie and the Pussycats. In the episode ""Never Mind A Master Mind". Melody tries to trade in wooden blocks for purple wooden shoes at a shoe store. The shoe store is actually a front for a spy operation and the phrase Melody uses turns out to be a code phrase identifying the user as a secret agent. Melody is thus given the mission intended for the real agent.
- This was a major part of The Brak Show episode "Shadows of Heat", where Brak's dad is involved in some conspiracy along with George Martinez, Hector Riviera and Rudolfo the Butcher. It turns out they're planning Hector's bachelor party.
- Famed undercover FBI agent Joseph D. Pistone (better known under his alias "Donnie Brasco") confirms that this is actually how a lot of modern Mafia members talk about "business". Because they can never be sure when law enforcement might be listening in, they tend to use the vaguest language possible, leading to such indecipherable statements as "Did you do the thing, with the two guys, in the place? No, no, the other place." Deciphering recordings of this jargon can be be a nightmare for law enforcement, who often listen for hours and hours without the slightest idea as to what or whom is being discussed.
- Well law enforcement, if they managed to listen, usually knows well what they are speaking about... they just can't use it in court as evidence.
- During Henry Hill's (the mobster whose life Goodfellas was based on) trial, the Feds brought in actual jewelers to testify that the conversations Hill was having weren't actually related to jewelry work and were instead code for drug deals.
- There are stories around here of drug dealers using similar codes, talking about delivering different colours of paint to talk about different drugs or amounts of them. There are also stories of that going wrong in the obvious way...
- A Stupid Crooks website (which has sadly been taken down) reported a case where drug buyers would ask for drugs by asking the dealer (who worked at a fast food restaurant) for a certain kind of food. The operation was discovered when a normal customer asked for that certain kind of food and got drugs as a result. The moral of the story: If you use a code phrase for illegal items, don't make it something that could logically be asked for at that place.
- John Barron's non-fiction book KGB: The Hidden Hand tells of a KGB agent explaining to an American he'd recruited about the use of signs and counter-signs, whereupon the man burst out laughing — he'd assumed that such talk had been a ridiculous invention of spy novel writers.
- Victor Suvorov, a former GRU (Soviet military intelligence, and rival agency to the KGB) says in Inside the Aquarium: Making of a Top Soviet Spy that signs and code phrases used in the field should be as innocuous as possible (and usually accompanied with similarly innocuous behaviour, like holding a newspaper under one arm). He also describes at least two situations when he almost missed the sign himself while meeting with contacts.
- People in Romania tried to use Spy Speak while talking about taboo subjects during the communist era. "Did the kids like the grapes I sent" was a possible analogy for asking if the family got the illegal books you bought in other countries. Granted, this never worked, as the state police did house wipes at the slightest suspicion. It did mean they have an excuse to beat someone up, empty their refrigerator and get praised for not killing/raping anyone.
- This was the purpose of Cockney rhyming slang (ex. apples and pears = stairs), which sounds absolutely silly to Americans.
- General Lloyd Fredendall, a US commander during World War 2, had a tendency to tell his staff to cut orders to subordinate commanders referring to "clouds," "popguns," "walking boys," and grid co-ordinates "starting with C." The unfortunate thing was that he never told anyone what his terms meant.
- A very common military strategy is for a soldier to challenge an approaching unknown with a number. The newcomer responds with another number, and their numbers should add up to a previously agreed upon number. A variation is to use hand signs to signal the numbers back and forth, while lessening the risk of outsiders overhearing the numbers. The number they are supposed to add up to will usually change from one day to the next as well.
- This is also particularly handy if you are wearing chem warfare gear that makes it difficult to talk clearly without shouting or to dig an ID card out of a pocket.
- Many forms of thieves' cant were invented exactly for this purpose. Russian ofenya is one of the modern examples.
- In cryptography, messages will be padded with nonsense for various reasons, depending on the encryption method used (including concealing the length of the message, or bringing it up to a whole number of blocks when using an encryption method that works on blocks of fixed size). During the Battle of Leyte Gulf, Admiral Nimitz sent a message to Admiral Halsey: "Where is, repeat, where is Task Force Thirty Four?". Routing information and padding was added to the message, and it was then transmitted. Upon receiving it, Halsey's radio officer removed the padding on the front, but overlooked the padding on the back. So the message that got handed to Halsey was "Where is, repeat, where is Task Force Thirty Four? The world wonders." Halsey took this as a sarcastic insult (as well he might) and then deliberately delayed for an hour.
- In political debates, these are called "dog whistles" — like Spy Speak, seemingly innocent phrases meant to give a cowardly debater plausible deniability if said debater wishes to hide or misrepresent their real opinions. The term, of course, comes from those whistles that dogs can hear and humans (usually) can't because they're outside the upper bounds of human frequency perception. A common one would be talking about "inner-city issues", which most people would understand as a veiled attack on ethnic minorities (who tend to live in the poorer downtown areas of American cities).
- To explain why a politician would want to take this risk: Dog-whistle words are usually used by politicians who belong to large, diverse parties (like the two all-inclusive parties in the US). They allow a politician to give subtle lip-service to the more extreme fringes of their party without (hopefully) offending the less radical center.
- This was fairly common practice in World War II naval codes. The names of locations would be meaningless nouns, so even if the code was cracked the enemy's information is limited. They may know a carrier task force is headed to "eggplant", but not what or where "eggplant" is. Adm. Yamamto's task force had to sail for around two weeks to reach Pearl Harbor, during which Japan was still trying to come to a diplomatic solution. Yamamato was to only attack Pearl Harbor if he received a transmission involving the words, "climb Mt. Niitaka." Sure enough, this message was received.
This confusion played a major part in the Battle of Midway. The US knew the Japanese were on the way to AF, but didn't know where AF was. They sent a fake message in the clear stating that Midway was having trouble getting fresh water. Later they intercepted a Japanese message saying that AF was having fresh water trouble. That's how they found out the Japanese were going to attack Midway.
- Businesses such as malls, department stores, or movie theaters will often have a set of innocuous-sounding code phrases that can be announced over the PA or radios to alert employees to problems or threats. These are designed to sound like normal messages so as not to panic the customers.
- The stereotypical one being "Manager Redmond to storage room 5" to signify that storage room 5 is on fire.
- Some schools do this as well, where the office will page a former/deceased teacher or administrator as a signal to lock doors and turn off lights (as with a school shooting or similar incident).
- Passwords in Freemasonry use the sign/countersign technique but usually with gestures, letters, and sounds instead of words.
- Some taxi businesses use these. If a fare was proving to be troublesome, they have two innocuous-sounding phrases they can transmit as part of the usual taxi-to-despatch radio communications. One phrase means "need assistance", the other means "need police". They're subtle rephrasings of one of the standard status calls.
- US military operations used to be named with a form of this, assigned two random words (e.g. "Market Garden") to prevent anyone from inferring anything about the nature of the operation. Nowadays many are given more overtly PR-friendly names (e.g., "Iraqi Freedom" for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, "Just Cause" for the 1989 invasion of Panama, "Tomodachi" (Japanese for "friend") for relief efforts following the 2011 Tohoku earthquake), though here it is more for selling the action for public support as by now such large-scale actions are nigh impossible to keep secret, and in any case more specific actions whose knowledge might be useful to adversaries still have such intent-obscuring names (e.g., Operation Red Dawn for the capture of Saddam Hussein, Operation Neptune Spear for the raid that killed Osama bin Laden).
- Other countries did this as well. To what extent the nature of the operation or project was betrayed by its name varied — Nazi Germany, for example, on one hand had invasion plans for several countries tied to colors (ex: the first Fall Grun ["Plan Green"] were invasion plans of Czechoslovakia had the Munich Conference fallen apart), which worked out all right. On the other hand, all the British needed to know about a project Nazi Germany had was its name ("Wotan", the German name for a one-eyed Norse god) to deduce it was a new radar system using a single location — obviously, that didn't do so well in the obscurity department.
- Another Nazi example is "operation sea lion", their plan for an assault and landing on the British coast. Note to all troperific generals: if it contains a clever reference to what you're planning to do, it's not a good code name.
- The British were known for honing the art of the Non-Indicative Name. For instance, Operation Dynamo (the evacuation of troops from Dunkirk) was so named because it was planned in an emergency session in a dynamo room. Operation Mincemeat (the planting of false documents on a real corpse in enemy territory) was literally picked off a list; in fact the name had been used by another operation some months before, and the names were recycled.