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How Military Operations Get Their Code Names

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Last month the world watched rebel forces pour into Tripoli under the banner of Operation Mermaid Dawn. While watching the news, I was struck by a curiosity many of you might have shared: just where exactly do these names come from?

It’s a relatively new practice, actually—less than a hundred years old. The Germans pioneered it during World War I, and the idea took hold in the interwar period, especially as radio became a predominant means of communication.

Before the U.S. even entered the war, Operation Indigo saw U.S. Marines land on Iceland to secure it against possible Axis invasion. Nazi Germany was simultaneously planning its invasion of Soviet Russia, which to this day is the largest military operation in history. It was originally named Operation Fritz, after the son of one of the planners. Hitler must have sensed the inadequacy of the name and upped the ante with a more regal moniker: Operation Barbarossa. The title came from Frederick I Barbarossa, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, who “extended German authority over the Slavs in the east and who, legend said, would rise again to establish a new German Empire.”

Churchill's Rules

Winston Churchill, who personally named the Normandy invasion, warned against the dangers of revelatory code names. At one point in the war, he insisted on personally approving every operation name before it was carried out. He quickly realized the impossibility of such a large task and settled for listing some guidelines in a 1943 memo:

1. Operations in which large numbers of men may lose their lives ought not to be described by code words which imply a boastful or overconfident sentiment. . . . They ought not to be names of a frivolous character. . . Names of living people--Ministers and Commanders--should be avoided. . . .

2. ...the world is wide, and intelligent thought will readily supply an unlimited number of well-sounding names which do not suggest the character of the operation or disparage it in any way and do not enable some widow or mother to say that her son was killed in an operation called "Bunnyhug" or "Ballyhoo."

3. Proper names are good in this field. The heroes of antiquity, figures from Greek and Roman mythology, the constellations and stars, famous racehorses, names of British and American war heroes, could be used, provided they fall within the rules above.

The names were kept in strict confidence—even the smallest compromises were call for alarm. In the months before the D-Day landings, the crossword puzzle of The Daily Telegraph displayed the code names for each of the landing beaches: Juno, Gold, Sword, Utah, Omaha. After that came the code name for the entire mission: Overlord.

British intelligence officers raced to Surrey and interrogated the crossword creator (a schoolmaster), only to find out he knew nothing. For decades it was thought to be a bizarre coincidence. But in 1984 Ronald French, who had been a schoolboy of 14 in 1944 (and one of the crossword creator’s pupils), claimed he inserted the words into the puzzle after hearing American soldiers talk about the invasion.

A Name for Everything

By the end of the war, the practice was well-established on all sides, with code names given for everything from post-war Nazi insurgencies (Operation Werwolf) to psychological mail campaigns (Operation Cornflakes) to fake missions altogether (Operation Mincemeat). In most cases, names were chosen by mid-level officers in charge of planning, but frequent interventions took place when tagging significant campaigns.

After World War II, the use of code names spread to the CIA (Operations Ajax and Zapata). The practice bloomed further during the Korean and Vietnam Wars, although the results were sometimes less artful than Churchill would have liked. Several missions that drew attention for the wrong reasons included Operations Killer, Ripper, Masher, and Moolah. On the Korean peninsula, Operation Paul Bunyan put a decisive end to the most contentious tree dispute between two neighbors in history.

By the end of Vietnam, Department of Defense officials recognized the need for further instruction to prevent negative responses to inopportune names, which were now being released to the public immediately after the missions began. In their 1972 guidelines, the DoD cautioned officers against names that: "express a degree of bellicosity inconsistent with traditional American ideals or current foreign policy," "convey connotations offensive to good taste or derogatory to a particular group, sect, or creed," "convey connotations offensive to allies or other Free World nations," or employ "exotic words, trite expressions, or well-known commercial trademarks." The Pentagon also required that all names feature two words.

Computers were added to the mix in 1975. NICKA, as the system is known, validates and stores all operational names. Each command of the U.S. military is given a series of two-letter prefixes. The first word of every operational name must start with one of those prefixes. For example, the U.S. Africa Command (based, of course, in Stuttgart) was allowed to choose between three groups of letters when naming the Libyan air campaign: JS-JZ, NS-NZ, and OA-OF. By choosing OD from the third list, they arrived at the word “Odyssey.” The second word may be chosen at random.

For the next several years, military operations assumed random names (Operation Golden Pheasant, anyone?) as a consequence. It wasn’t until 1989 and the invasion of Panama that a new trend was born. With the rise of cable and the 24-hour news cycle, the military saw operational names as an outlet for public relations work.

After complete success in having the press adopt “Just Cause” as the sobriquet for removing Noriega, a decade of well-intentioned but slightly overwrought moralisms were forced on the public: Operations Restore Hope, Uphold Democracy, Shining Hope, and six different missions that were supposed to “Provide” something: Comfort, Relief, Promise, Hope, Refuge, and Transition. Despite these overreaches, the result is probably preferable to the fallout from a dud like Operation Killer.

© Sgt. Jose D. Trejo/CORBIS

In the past, operation names covered single actions within a larger framework of conflict. Now the practice has grown to encompass entire wars. Nowhere is this more evident than the Gulf War, which is synonymous with Desert Storm. Had General Norman Schwarzkopf gotten his preferred choice of names for the lead-up to war, we would have never gotten a name like Desert Storm. It was only after the Joint Chiefs nixed Peninsula Shield, then Crescent Shield, that Operation Desert Shield (and then Desert Storm) became a reality.

Despite all of these evolutions, it seems impossible to completely escape controversy in naming operations that are, at their core, violent and often messy. In 2001, when President Bush launched the War on Terror, the invasion of Afghanistan was initially called Operation Infinite Justice (a name Churchill might have taken issue with). Critics cried out that its divine connotation might offend many Muslims whose support America wanted. The name was quickly changed to Operation Enduring Freedom. Then in 2003, the president’s press secretary referred to the Iraq war as Operation Iraqi Liberation, providing fodder for conspiracy theorists everywhere with the acronym O.I.L.

So ... Mermaid Dawn?

As it turns out, "mermaid" has long been a nickname for Tripoli, which helps explain Operation Mermaid Dawn. Although the rebels might have not given us the best name to bandy around in the press, it certainly fared better than Operation Ripper (Part II: The Final Rip) would have. That would have sent the wrong message to almost anyone—except maybe Qaddafi himself.

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10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
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Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.

1. ON SCIENCE

"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.

2. ON NASA FUNDING

"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles

3. ON GOD AND HURRICANES

"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole

4. ON THE BENEFITS OF TECHNOLOGY INVENTED FOR USE IN SPACE

"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles

5. ON THE DEMOTION OF PLUTO FROM PLANET STATUS 

PBS

"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

6. ON JAMES CAMERON'S TITANIC

"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole

7. ON DEATH BY ASTEROID

"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles

8. ON THE MOTIVATIONS BEHIND AMERICA'S MOONSHOT

"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

9. ON INTELLIGENT LIFE (OR THE LACK THEREOF)

Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."

10. PRACTICAL ADVICE IN THE EVENT OF ALIEN CONTACT 

A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios
"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole
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40 Fun Facts About Sesame Street
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Now in its 47th season, Sesame Street is one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame facts from previous stories and our Amazing Fact Generator.

Sesame Workshop

1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.

2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius

6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

10. Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.

11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.

13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2". (Pictured with First Lady Pat Nixon.)

15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS' funding.

17. Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmere, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”

19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.

21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.

24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.

26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student, Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.

27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

28. Sesame Street’s Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.

29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.

33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

34. As Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."

35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

37. Sesame's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.

39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.

40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks to Stacy Conradt, Joe Hennes, Drew Toal, and Chris Higgins for their previous Sesame coverage!

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.

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