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11 Clandestine Words from the Lexicon of Spying

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Spies are a perpetual source of fascination in pop culture, from the adventures of James Bond to the travails of KGB agents Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings on The Americans—not to mention real-life tales of dead drops and honey traps. Most people are familiar with terms such as asset, tradecraft, and double agent, but some spy terms are a little more covert. Here’s a look at some clandestine words you should be prepared to disavow completely if questioned.

1. MOLE-CATCHER

Since the 1980s, mole-catcher has been used in relation to the lowest form of mole: the informant. In Gerald Priestland’s 1983 book At Large, he discusses “Mrs Thatcher's mole-catcher, the Mr Bingham of Epsom who is supposed to be plugging the leaks in Whitehall.” A Guardian article from 1986 mentions a downside to catching a sneak: “Prime Ministers were not necessarily overjoyed when the efforts of their mole catchers proved successful. The lurid publicity of a spy trial could be embarrassing.”

2. PHYLACTOLOGY

This word for counterespionage was coined by novelist Kingsley Amis in 1966’s The Anti-Death League: “Apparently what's called the philosophy of phylactology—spy-catching to you—has been transformed.” Amis also coined the rare words phylactological and phylactologist. Given their obscurity, these are perfect words for the spy game. You could put phylactologist on a business card, and no one would blink.

3. QUIET AMERICAN

This phrase is derived from the title to Graham Greene’s 1955 novel The Quiet American, whose protagonist Alden Pyle is a CIA agent in Vietnam.

4. SPIERY

The Oxford English Dictionary defines this obscure word as “The fact or condition of being a spy; the action of spying; espionage.” A mention in the awkwardly titled 1588 book The Troubles of Our Catholic Forefathers Related by Themselves puts the word in disreputable company: “examinations, confessions, fictions, accusations, slanders, spiery, recantation and the like.”

5. PLAY MATERIAL

Since the late 1800s, this has been a term for the harmless stuff given to children as play fodder, such as crayons, paper, and matches. But in the 1960s, another sense developed, retaining the sense of harmlessness. Eric Ambler used the term in his 1969 spy thriller The Intercom Conspiracy: “‘Play material’ was the jargon phrase used to describe the low-grade classified information fed back to the enemy through double agents.”

6. CUT-OUT

While cut-out sounds like more childlike play material, it’s a crucial cog in the machinery of spycraft. In his 1963 book They Call it Intelligence: Spies and Spy Techniques Since World War II, Joachim Joesten describes a cutout as “a trusted middleman.” The idea is compartmentalization, cutting out the spy from some of the risk and the cut-out from too much potentially dangerous information.

7. DISCOVERER

This is one of the most honest and dishonest words for a spy, who does often discover information, though not by the most straightforward means. This term has been describing spies and scouts since the mid-1400s, and it appears in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 2: “Here ... send discoverers forth, To know the numbers of our enemies.”

8. WORMING

It’s not unusual to hear someone engaged in slippery, ingratiating behavior described as worming their way into the hearts and minds of their dupes. You don’t often hear worming as meaning the work of spies, but it has occasionally had just this meaning. In Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher’s 1607 play The Woman Hater, spying is referred to as “this worming trade.”

9. SWALLOW

The honey trap or honey pot is one of the most famous espionage strategies: seducing someone as part of a ruse. Hardly an episode of The Americans goes by without one or both of the Jennings honey-trapping some lonely, gullible citizen. In the 1972 book Any Number Can Play, the awesomely named Dennis Bloodworth mentions a related term in a passage trimmed by the OED: “You have doubtless read about the ... ‘swallows’ of the KGB, the young ladies trained ... to bed down intelligence targets, so that they can be comfortably and conveniently bugged and photographed in compromising ... positions?”

10. CRYPTONYM

There are so many -nyms in the vocabulary of names. A pseudonym is an author’s fake name, while an eponym is a word derived from a name. But a cryptonym is far more sly: Since the mid-1800s, it’s been a code name, especially for a spy. An 1862 use in St. James’ Magazine mentions a common feature of spy life: “For a short time he assumed several unobtrusive civilian cryptonyms.”

11. LURCHER

No offense to Frankenstein, but lurching has never had the best reputation. The OED definition explains how this word found itself in the espionage lexicon: “One who loiters or lies hidden in a suspicious manner; a spy.” Other disreputable meanings of lurcher include a cross-bred dog and a swindler. So if a labradoodle ever wants to sell you real estate, beware.

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How to Craft the Perfect Comeback, According to Experts
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In a 1997 episode of Seinfeld called “The Comeback,” George Costanza is merrily stuffing himself with free shrimp at a meeting. His coworker mocks him: “Hey, George, the ocean called. They’re running out of shrimp.” George stands humiliated as laughter fills the room, his mind searching frantically for the perfect riposte.

It’s only later, on the drive home, that he thinks of the comeback. But the moment has passed.

The common human experience of thinking of the perfect response too late—l’esprit de l’escalier, or "the wit of the staircase"—was identified by French philosopher Denis Diderot when he was so overwhelmed by an argument at a party that he could only think clearly again once he’d gotten to the bottom of the stairs.

We've all been there. Freestyle rappers, improv comedians, and others who rely on witty rejoinders for a living say their jobs make them better equipped to seize the opportunity for clever retorts in everyday life. They use a combination of timing, listening, and gagging their inner critics. Here are their insights for crafting the perfect comeback.

LISTEN TO YOUR OPPONENT’S ARGUMENT.

The next time you’re in a heated conversation, be less focused on what you're about to say and more attentive to what you're actually responding to. When you spend more time considering what your sparring partner is saying, “you’re deferring your response until you’ve fully heard the other person," Jim Tosone, a technology executive-turned-improv coach who developed the Improv Means Business program, tells Mental Floss. Your retorts may be more accurate, and therefore more successful, when you’re fully engaged with the other person’s thoughts.

DON’T THINK TOO MUCH.

According to Belina Raffy, the CEO of the Berlin-based company Maffick—which also uses improv skills in business—not overthinking the situation is key. “You’re taking yourself out of unfolding reality if you think too much,” she tells Mental Floss. It’s important to be in the moment, and to deliver your response to reflect that moment.

TRAIN THAT SPONTANEOUS MENTAL MUSCLE.

History’s most skilled comeback artists stored witticisms away for later use, and were able to pull them out of their memory at the critical time.

Winston Churchill was known for his comebacks, but Tim Riley, director and chief curator at the National Churchill Museum in Fulton, Missouri, tells Mental Floss that many of his burns were borrowed. One of his most famous lines was in response to politician Bessie Braddock’s jab, “Sir, you are drunk.” The prime minister replied, “And you, Bessie, are ugly. But I shall be sober in the morning, and you will still be ugly.”

Riley says this line was copied from comic W.C. Fields. Nevertheless, it took quick thinking to remember and reshape the quote in the moment, which is why Churchill was thought of as a master of timing. “It was an off-the-cuff recall of something he had synthesized, composed earlier, and that he was waiting to perform,” Riley says.

But in some situations, the retort must be created entirely in the moment. Training for spontaneity on stage also helps with being quicker-witted in social situations, New York City battle rap emcee iLLspokinn tells Mental Floss. It’s like working a spontaneous muscle that builds with each flex, so, you’re incrementally better each time at seizing that witty opportunity.

MUZZLE YOUR INNER CRITIC.

Anyone who has been in the audience for an improv show has seen how rapidly performers respond to every situation. Improv teaches you to release your inhibitions and say what drops into your mind: “It’s about letting go of the need to judge ourselves,” Raffy explains.

One way to break free of your internal editor might be to imagine yourself on stage. In improv theater, the funniest responses occur in the spur of the moment, says Douglas Widick, an improv performer who trained with Chicago’s Upright Citizens Brigade. By not letting one’s conscience be one’s guide, actors can give into their “deepest fantasies” and say the things they wouldn’t say in real life.

IF YOU HAVE AN EXTRA SECOND, HONE YOUR ZINGER.

The German version of Diderot’s term is Treppenwitz, also meaning the wit of the stairs. But the German phrase has evolved to mean the opposite: Something said that, in retrospect, was a bad joke. When squaring up to your rival, the high you get from spearing your opponent with a deadly verbal thrust can be shadowed by its opposite, the low that comes from blurting out a lame response that lands like a lead balloon.

That's a feeling that freestyle rapper Lex Rush hopes to avoid. “In the heat of the battle, you just go for it,” she tells Mental Floss. She likens the fight to a “stream of consciousness” that unfolds into the mic, which leaves her with little control over what she’s projecting into the crowd.

It may help to mull over your retort if you have a few extra seconds—especially if you’re the extroverted type. “Introverts may walk out of a meeting thinking, ‘Why didn’t I say that?’ while extroverts think, ‘Why did I say that?’” Tosone, the improv coach, says. Thinking before you speak, even just briefly, will help you deploy a successful comeback.

And if it doesn’t go your way, iLLspokinn advises brushing off your missed opportunity rather than dwelling on your error: “It can be toxic to hold onto it."

THROW DIGITAL SHADE ACCORDING TO THE SAME RULES—BUT BE QUICK ABOUT IT.

Texting and social media, as opposed to face-to-face contact, give you a few extra minutes to think through your responses. That could improve the quality of your zinger. “We’re still human beings, even on screens. And we prefer something that is well-stated and has a fun energy and wit about it," Scott Talan, a social media expert at American University, tells Mental Floss.

But don't wait too long: Replies lose their punch after a day or so. “Speed is integral to wit, whether in real life or screen life,” Talan says. “If you’re trying to be witty and have that reputation, then speed will help you."

Some companies have excelled in deploying savage social media burns as marketing strategies, winning viral retweets and recognition. The Wendy’s Twitter account has become so well known for its sassy replies that users often provoke it. “Bet you won’t follow me @Wendys,” a user challenged. “You won that bet,” Wendy’s immediately shot back.

George Costanza learns that lesson when he uses his rehearsed comeback at the next meeting. After his colleague repeats his shrimp insult, George stands and proudly announces, “Oh yeah? Well, the jerk store called, and they’re running out of you!”

There’s silence—until his nemesis comes back with a lethal move: “What’s the difference? You’re their all-time best-seller.”

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Dollar Words: The Logophile Game That Has Math Geeks Hooked, Too
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Besides anagrams and palindromes, if there’s one thing wordplay aficionados like to mess around with, it’s the numerical value of the letters of the alphabet. Assigning numbers to letters—A = 1, B =2, C = 3, and so on, all the way through to Z = 26—opens the alphabet up to all kinds of mathematical and numerical games and trivia.

So add the value of ARM (32) to the value of BEND (25) and you get the value of ELBOW (57). Likewise, WHITE (65) plus HOUSE (68) equals GOVERNMENT (133). HAIR (8, 1, 9, 18) is a palindrome in this A to Z number system, as is INSULINS (9, 14, 19, 21, 12, 9, 14, 19). Add up the neighboring letter pairs in CAN (3 + 1, 1 + 14), and you’ll get DO (4, 15). The letters in FOURTEEN DOZEN add up to 14 dozen (168).

One more game that can be played with the numerical values of the alphabet is to search for words that total a specific value—the holy grail of which is precisely 100. Words that total 100 in this A to Z way are affectionately known as “dollar words.” They’re actually not all that rare in English, and a full list of them includes some fairly familiar words:

ANNUALLY BOUNDARY CULTURE DRIZZLE

MITTENS MOODIEST NASTILY OUTSET

PAYPHONE PORTLAND PREVENT PRIMARY

PRINTER SESSION SOURCES STRESS

STYLES SWIMMER TATTOOED THIRTY

TOILETS TURKEY UNDRESS USELESS

WHENEVER WHISKING WHISTLES WEDNESDAY

But given a set total in mind, that raises a couple of questions: What are the shortest and the longest dollar words in the dictionary?

Because 100 is a relatively large total for a short word (and because a lot of the highest value letters at the tail end of the alphabet are hard to find homes for, like V, X, and Z) shorter dollar words are fairly hard to come by. As a result, only a handful of 5-letter dollar words have ever been discovered, including:

BUZZY NUTTY PUSSY

In fact, as proof of just how many seldom-used letters lie at the end of the alphabet, if you were to change the numbers around so that A = 26, B =25, and so on through to Z = 1, the number of five-letter dollar words increases enormously:

ABBEY ACRID BACON BASAL

BEFOG BEGET CATCH CHAIN

CHALK CHINA DODGE ELIDE

FACET HENCE IMAGE LAGAN

LANCE MAGMA MEDAL NAKED

But shortest of all are two 4-letter words: acca, an Australian slang word for an academic, and caca, a childish word for poop.

Oppositely, it can be just as difficult looking for as long a dollar word as possible; the more letters a word has, the higher its total grows. But the relatively high frequency of the letters in the first few places of the alphabet means that there are quite a few lengthy dollar words, including some with as many as 12 letters:

BACKTRACKING COMMANDEERED

DEBAUCHERIES DESEGREGATED

INAPPLICABLE NON-BREAKABLE

Apparently longest of all is the 13-letter word adiabatically, a term from meteorology and thermodynamics referring to any process that occurs without a loss or gain of heat.

But why stop at adding up? Multiplying the numerical values of words leads to some considerably larger numbers—and some considerably higher targets.

Multiply the letters of the word TYPEY together, for instance, and you’ll end up with 1,000,000 (= 20 × 25 × 16 × 5 × 25). TEETHY multiplies to 2,000,000 (= 20 × 5 × 5 × 20 × 8 × 25). And PEYOTE multiplies to 3,000,000 (= 16 × 5 × 25 × 15 × 20 × 5). No word has yet been found that totals precisely 4,000,000 or 5,000,000, but some—like LURING (4,000,752) and JUICING (5,000,940)—have come tantalizingly close.

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