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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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Big Questions
Why Do We Call People Blamed for Things 'Scapegoats'?
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From Marie Antoinette to the cow that reportedly caused the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, history is filled with figures who were single-handedly—yet often undeservedly—held responsible for epic societal failures or misdeeds. In other words, they became scapegoats. But what did goats (who are actually pretty awesome creatures) do to deserve association with this blameworthy bunch?

The word scapegoat was first coined by English Protestant scholar William Tyndale in his 1530 English translation of the Bible, according to David Dawson’s 2013 book Flesh Becomes Word: A Lexicography of the Scapegoat Or, the History of an Idea. Tyndale, who was deciphering Hebrew descriptions of Yom Kippur rituals from the Book of Leviticus, recounted a ceremony in which one of two goats was selected by lot. A high priest would place his hands on the goat’s head and confess his people's sins— thus transferring them to the animal—before casting it out into the wilderness to rid Israel of its transgressions. As for the other goat, it would be sacrificed to the Lord.

Tyndale coined the word scapegoat to describe the sin-bearing creature, interpreting the Hebrew word azazel or Azazel as ez ozel, or "the goat that departs or escapes." That said, some scholars have disagreed with his interpretation, claiming that Azazel actually stands for the name of a goat-like wilderness demon, whom the offering was meant for, or a specific location in the desert to where sins were banished, often thought to be a mountainous cliff from which the scapegoat was cast off and killed.

Over the centuries, the word scapegoat became disassociated with its Biblical meaning, and it eventually became used as a metaphor to describe a person who shoulders the blame of any wrongdoing. Now that you know the word's etymology, remember the poor animals that inspired it, and maybe resolve to go a little easier on the next person who ends up having to take the fall for everyone else's mistakes.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Neighborhoods
How 8 Twin Cities Neighborhoods Got Their Names
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Poetry, frogs, and … murder? Neighborhoods in St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota were named after all three. Read on for the stories behind some of the Twin Cities’ many neighborhood names.

1. LONGFELLOW, MINNEAPOLIS

If the name rings a bookish bell, it should: The neighborhood was named after Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the 19th century author who penned beloved poems such as The Song of Hiawatha. There is also the Longfellow Community, which includes the Longfellow neighborhood and several other smaller neighborhoods too, all of which have Victorian-era connotations. Howe was named after Julia Ward Howe, whose 1862 “Battle Hymn of the Republic” is one of the United States’ most beloved patriotic songs. Cooper was ultimately named after James Fenimore Cooper, the novelist best known for The Last of the Mohicans. Seward bears the name of William Seward, Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State. And Hiawatha shares its name with Longfellow’s famous poem, which in part tells the tragic story of an Ojibwe warrior and his love for a Dakota woman, Minnehaha. That name might ring a bell, too: It’s been bestowed on countless things in the region, including another Minneapolis neighborhood.

2. FROGTOWN, ST. PAUL

Frogtown has a more official-sounding name: Thomas-Dale. But the neighborhood has been known by an amphibian moniker for years. Nobody’s completely sure why. Theories range from a 19th-century bishop nicknaming the marshy area after its chorus of frogs to a German nickname for the croakers. Others suspect the word “frog” was meant as an ethnic slur to describe the area’s French residents [PDF] or that it was derived from a common nickname for the tool that’s used to switch railroad cars from track to track (the area was once home to two rail yards). It may never be clear which is true, but the neighborhood was built near swampy wetland—which could explain the ribbity label.

3. POWDERHORN PARK, MINNEAPOLIS

What sounds like a potentially violent place name is anything but. Instead, Powderhorn Park got its name from something that gives Minnesota its reputation as the “Land of 10,000 Lakes”—a body of water. It’s just 12 acres, but Powderhorn Lake once bore a resemblance to the gunpowder containers toted by people in the days before paper (and later metallic) cartridges. (Modern cartridges hold bullets, gunpowder, and a primer; back then, the gun was primed by hand after pouring the gunpowder in.) The funnel-like device is now obsolete and once the lake became part of a municipal park, it lost its original looks. Still, the name remains, as does the grand Minnesota tradition of lake pride.

4. COMO PARK, ST. PAUL

That pride isn’t always well-founded—despite their majestic-sounding names, many of Minnesota’s lakes are, well, not so majestic. St. Paul’s Como Park neighborhood got its name from Lake Como, which conjures up visions of the dramatic subalpine lake it’s named after. But even though the St. Paul lake is no pond, it’s not exactly as scenic as something you’d find in Italy. If the legend is to be believed, that didn’t concern the lake’s first white settler, a Swiss immigrant named Charles Perry, all that much, and he renamed the lake—known by the uninspiring name Sandy Lake—after the Alps he loved. However, there’s a competing and more likely theory. The lake might have been named not by Perry, but by a land speculator named Henry McKenty who profited from the Alpine association. Well, kind of: As the Park Bugle’s Roger Bergerson notes, McKenty lost everything in the Panic of 1857 and moved on, presumably to give dramatic monikers to other bodies of water.

5. HOLLAND, MINNEAPOLIS

You might assume that a neighborhood called Holland was named after its Dutch residents. In this case, you’d be wrong: Holland was named after a 19th century novelist named Josiah Gilbert Holland. Holland helped found Scribner’s Monthly, one of the most influential publications of its day. He was well known during his heyday, but not under his own name. Rather, he often published under the pseudonym “Timothy Titcomb.” In books like Titcomb’s Letters to Young People, Single and Married, Holland gave advice on everything from etiquette to romance. “Never content yourself with the idea of having a common-place wife,” he urged his male readers. “You want one who will stimulate you, stir you up, keep you moving, show you your weak points, and make something of you.”

6. DAYTON’S BLUFF, ST. PAUL

Lyman Dayton, the land speculator after whom Dayton’s Bluff is named, found a wife. But all too soon, she became a widow. Described as “an energetic, stirring, liberal, kind-hearted man,” Dayton came to Minnesota from New England and decided to buy up land east of St. Paul in the hopes of making his fortune. No matter that a large ravine separated his land from the city. His gamble ended up making sense for homeowners, who built their houses on top of the neighborhood’s rolling hills. Early residents were rich Germans who made the most of their views. But Dayton’s triumph didn’t last long: He was in poor health and died at just 55 years of age. His widow and only son ended up living in a nearby town that, appropriately, bore their last name. Today, Dayton, Minnesota is home to about 4600 residents.

7. BELTRAMI, MINNEAPOLIS

Many of Minneapolis’s neighborhoods bear the names of the developers who created them. Not so Beltrami. It’s named after Giacomo Beltrami, an Italian explorer and jurist who discovered the headwaters of the Mississippi. Or so he claimed. The restless Italian loved the Mississippi River and set out to discover where it came from. When he made it to the lake he named Lake Julia in 1823, he figured that was its source and spread the news far and wide. Of course, he was wrong: The mighty river’s head is actually at Lake Itasca in north central Minnesota. Apparently Beltrami’s claim was taken with a grain of salt, even though the true source wasn’t identified until 1832. Beltrami eventually went back to Europe, but he’s still commemorated in Minnesota for his exploration and his dramatic accounts of the area.

8. PAYNE-PHALEN, ST. PAUL

Beltrami was dramatic, but the story of Edward Phelan (or Phalen), after whom a lake from which the Payne-Phalen neighborhood drew its moniker was partially named, makes the explorer’s life seem tepid. Phelan, an Irishman, was one of St. Paul’s first residents—and possibly its first murderer.

After being discharged from the U.S. Army at nearby Fort Snelling, he arrived in the St. Paul area, which had only recently been opened for settlement. That meant he had first dibs on land that few had even seen yet. However, Phelan’s empty pocketbook meant he had to join forces with a sergeant, John Hays, to buy up the land he wanted—a prime slice of real estate in what is now downtown St. Paul. Phelan, who was known for his temper, started farming with Hays. But then Hays disappeared—and when his mutilated body was found near a local cave, Phelan was the prime suspect [PDF]. Neighbors all contradicted Phelan’s version of the story, which was that Native Americans had attacked his former business partner. Phalen was found not guilty, but in the time the trial took Hay’s claim had been jumped, and since all of his neighbors felt he was guilty, Phalen moved away. Eventually he himself would be murdered on his way to finding fortune in California. Despite the distasteful associations, his name ended up on several St. Paul landmarks, including Lake Phalen, after which the neighborhood is named. As for Hays, his name has faded from memory—and as MPR News’ Tracy Mumford notes, it’s not even certain where his bones were buried.

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