14 Secrets of Secret Service Agents

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On the day he was shot and killed by John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln approved the formation of the United States Secret Service, a government agency tasked with protecting the integrity of the nation’s currency. In 1901, after the assassination of President William McKinley, Congress extended their duties to involve the protection of the president.

As the name implies, the organization is extremely guarded when it comes to discussing details of their methods, but that doesn’t mean we’re completely in the dark. We spoke with former agent Tim Wood, along with journalists Ronald Kessler and Jeffrey Robinson (all authors of books about the Secret Service), to learn more about how the agency insulates the leader of the free world from harm, the sometimes surprisingly low-tech anti-threat tactics they use, and how the Oval Office can safely order a pizza.

1. THEY TRAVEL WITH BAGS OF THE PRESIDENT’S BLOOD.

Although thousands of agents are employed by the Secret Service, only a small number are assigned to the Presidential Protection Division (PPD), the branch of the agency responsible for guarding the lives of the commander in chief and their family. According to Jeffrey Robinson, co-author of former agent Joseph Petro’s autobiography Standing Next to History, the division is methodical about making sure agents are trained in “ten-minute medicine,” or doing everything possible to keep the president alive until he or she can receive specialized medical attention in the event of an emergency.

“When they travel, they’re never more than 10 minutes away from a trauma center,” Robinson says. “They’ll have an agent posted at the hospital who knows the operating room staff.” Additionally, the travel group will have bags of blood in the president’s motorcade in the event a transfusion is needed.

The focus on emergency medicine training helped save Ronald Reagan's life during a 1981 assassination attempt. After being shot, Reagan thought he had suffered only a minor rib injury, and the plan was to take him to the White House, considered the safest place in the capital. But in the president's limo, Agent Jerry Parr noticed frothy red blood coming from Reagan's mouth—a sign he had been bleeding from the lungs. The decision was quickly made to reroute Reagan to the hospital, where doctors discovered Reagan had been shot in the lung. The president endured several hours of surgery and post-operative complications before making a complete recovery.

2. THEY MAKE SURE THE PRESIDENT IS NEVER ALONE. EVEN IN THE BATHROOM.

Being on protective detail means following the president wherever he or she might go. This includes the bathroom, the doctor’s office, or anywhere that might benefit from a little privacy. “The president is never alone,” Robinson says. “When Reagan was in office, Joe was there for his prostate exams and colonoscopies. He was always in the room with a gun. And if he thought the doctor was any kind of threat, he would’ve shot him.”

3. THEY INTERVIEW POTENTIAL ASSASSINS.

While making a threat against the president’s life is never a good idea, it’s up to agents to determine whether you should be warned, committed for psychiatric evaluation, or charged with a Class E felony. According to 23-year Secret Service veteran Tim Wood, author of Criminals and Presidents: The Adventures of a Secret Service Agent, this is called “protective intelligence.” Any time someone makes a suggestion of wanting to cause the president harm, every aspect of their lives will be investigated. “We interview friends, neighbors, associates, employees,” Wood says. “The question is, ‘Is this person serious?’” When Wood interviewed a man who had made repeated calls threatening Reagan’s life, he determined the subject had an alcohol problem and possible mental illness, sparing him serious prosecution.

4. THEY CAN BE ORDERED TO PROTECT ANYONE.

Presidents and vice-presidents don’t have the ability to refuse Secret Service supervision once they take office, although some can switch to private security detail once they’ve served their term.

However, they do have a say in whether someone else can be assigned Secret Service protection. According to Ronald Kessler, author of In the President’s Secret Service, agents started to escort some White House staff members following the September 11 attacks at the behest of George W. Bush. “It’s a fairly recent development,” Kessler says. Among other duties, agents can accompany children to school, standing outside classrooms until the lesson is over.

5. THEY FILM THE PRESIDENT IN CASE SOMETHING HAPPENS.

For all of the controversy it created, the Zapruder film of the 1963 John F. Kennedy assassination was invaluable in helping the Secret Service understand how quickly a situation can spin out of control. To this day, agents still screen the footage as part of their training. According to Kessler, they also film current presidential motorcades in the event they need to review an attack. “Recently, someone threw something at Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago,” Kessler says. “They were able to locate the person thanks to video.”

6. THE FOOD IS UNDER CONSTANT SURVEILLANCE.

“If you send the president a Christmas ham, it’ll never get to him,” Robinson says. Every bite of food presented to the president is prepared under the watchful eye of the Secret Service, who stare down White House chefs to make sure no one is flavoring with arsenic or rat poison. When the president travels, Navy stewards come along to prepare food. And when the president has a photo-op at a diner and orders food, it’s not likely he’s going to eat it.

Surprisingly, it’s still possible to just order a pizza. “If the president wants a pizza, they’ll have it delivered to the Naval Observatory or another address nearby,” Robinson says. “Since the [pizzeria] doesn’t know who it’s for, it reduces the danger.”

7. HOTELS HATE THEM.

When the president travels, the Secret Service kicks into overdrive, scouting hotel destinations in an attempt to control a foreign environment. Hotel employees who will be in contact with the government entourage are subject to background checks. “If anyone has a criminal history, the hotel manager will ask them not to come in that day,” Kessler says. The Secret Service will also take over entire floors above and below the president and commandeer elevators for their own private use, which can disrupt a hotel’s business. They’ll even keep an elevator repairman on standby in the event the POTUS gets stuck.

8. THEY HAVE A WAY OF TRACKING YOU, AND IT’S IN YOUR DESK DRAWER RIGHT NOW.

When the White House receives troubling or threatening hand-written correspondence, agents have a way of narrowing down their search for subjects. Kessler says that the Secret Service, working in tandem with ink manufacturers, maintains a vast database of distinctive “tags” in the ink that can be identified and narrowed to the brand and where in the country it’s sold. “It’s similar to the way explosives manufacturers identify material,” he says.

9. “WORKING THE ROPE” IS THE MOST NERVE-WRACKING PART OF THE JOB.

According to Wood, no other detail duty is quite as stressful as dealing with impromptu presidential greetings with private citizens standing behind a roped-off area. “That’s where agents earn their money,” he says. “You have no idea what an uncontrolled crowd might do.” To minimize threats, agents are constantly scanning for hands stuffed in pockets or other signs of suspicious activity. Their omnipresent sunglasses? Those are for crowd-scanning without tipping off potential suspects, and to ward off any liquids or other projectiles thrown in their direction.

10. THEY TEND TO PICK UP NEW HOBBIES.

Because the president is never without an escort, Secret Service agents are often forced to learn new hobbies. Wood didn’t have any experience riding horses when he accompanied Bill Clinton for rides during his two terms. “Fortunately, Clinton was not a master horseman like Reagan, so it was just a simple trail ride,” Wood says. But Clinton was a well-conditioned jogger, which forced agents to be in great shape in order to be able to keep up. “You’re doing your job while running for five miles,” Wood says.

11. THERE’S NO SWORN OATH TO DIE FOR THE PRESIDENT.

Despite Hollywood’s depictions of life in the Service, agents never have to explicitly “swear” to give up their life in order to protect the president. “They never utter that sentence,” Kessler says. “It’s understood that something like that could happen, but they take every possible step to avoid it.”

12. THEIR LIMO IS STRAIGHT OUT OF A JAMES BOND MOVIE.

When the president is on the road, he’s typically in a very heavily armored limousine that’s flat-tire-proof, bulletproof, and driven by agents with extensive experience in defensive driving. According to Wood, agents are trained to perform a 180-degree turn in the event of a road block or explosion. Both the limo and other vehicles used by the president are serviced by a Secret Service garage, which makes modifications to commercial vehicles to make them more attack-resistant.

13. THEY GET SHOT WITH FAKE BULLETS.

In order to prepare for any eventuality, agents undergo regular and rigorous scenario training, with an agent acting as a stand-in for the president while other agents try to navigate threats. To make the simulation effective, Wood says that the training incorporates non-lethal "marking rounds," or plastic bullets that leave a colored trace and a superficial sting. “Instead of a blank going off, you’d know if you’ve been hit or where you hit your target,” he says.

14. THEY DON’T CARRY BAGS, SO DON’T ASK.

The quickest way to annoy a Secret Service agent? Ask them to carry your luggage or grocery bags. “[Vice-President] Walter Mondale once asked an agent to pick up laundry,” Robinson says. “They don’t do that.”

All images courtesy of Getty/iStock.

13 Secrets of Halloween Costume Designers

vadimguzhva/iStock via Getty Images
vadimguzhva/iStock via Getty Images

For consumers, Halloween may be all about scares, but for businesses, it’s all about profits. According to the National Retail Federation, consumers will spend $8.8 billion this year on spooky goods, including $3.2 billion on costumes. “It’s an opportunity to be something you’re not the other 364 days of the year,” Jonathan Weeks, founder of Costumeish.com, tells Mental Floss. “It feels like anything goes.”

To get a better sense of what goes into those lurid, funny, and occasionally outrageous disguises, we spoke to a number of designers who are constantly trying to react to an evolving seasonal market. Here’s what we learned about what sells, what doesn’t, and why adding a “sexy” adjective to a Halloween costume doesn’t always work.

1. Some Halloween costumes are just too outrageous for retail

For kids, Halloween is a time to look adorable in exchange for candy. For adults, it’s a time to push the envelope. Sometimes that means provocative, revealing costumes; other times, it means going for shock value. “You get looks at a party dressed as an Ebola worker,” Weeks says. “We have pregnant nun costumes, baby cigarette costumes.” The catch: You won’t be finding these at Walmart. “They’re meant for online, not Spencer’s or Party City.”

2. … but there are some lines Halloween costume designers won’t cross.

Although Halloween is the one day of the year people can deploy a dark sense of humor without inviting personal or professional disaster, some costume makers draw their own line when it comes to how far to exceed the boundaries of good taste. “We’ve never done a child pimp costume, but someone else has,” says Robert Berman, co-founder of Rasta Imposta. Weeks says some questionable ideas that have been brought to the discussion table have stayed there. “There’s no toddler KKK costume or baby Nazi costume,” he says. “There is a line.”

3. Designers can produce a Halloween costume in a matter of days.

A lot of costume interest comes from what’s been making headlines in the fall: Costumers have to be ready to meet that demand. “We’re pretty good at being able to react quickly,” says Pilar Quintana, vice-president of merchandising for Yandy.com. “Something happening in April may not be strong enough to stick around for Halloween.”

Because the mail-order site has in-house models and isn’t beholden to approval from big box vendors, Quintana can design and photograph a costume so it’s available within 72 hours. If it's more elaborate, it can take a little longer: Both Yandy and Weeks had costumes inspired by the Cecil the Lion story that broke in July 2015 (in which a trophy hunter from Minnesota killed an African lion) on their sites in a matter of weeks.

4. Beyonce can help move stale inventory.

Extravagant custom tailoring jobs aside, Halloween costumes are a business of instant demand and instant gratification—inventory needs to be plentiful in order to fill the deluge of orders that come in a short frame of time. If a business miscalculates the popularity of a given theme, they might be stuck with overstock until they can find a better idea to hang on it. “[In 2016] we had 400 or 500 Zorro costumes that we couldn’t sell for $10,” Weeks says. “It had a big black hat that came with it, and I thought, ‘That looks familiar.’ It turned out it looked a lot like the one Beyonce wore in her ‘Lemonade’ video.” Remarketed as a "Formation" hat for Beyonce cosplayers, Weeks moved his stock.

5. Women don’t usually wear masks as part of their Halloween costumes.

Curiously, there’s a large gender gap when it comes to the sculpted latex monster masks offered by Halloween vendors: They’re sold almost exclusively to men. “There just aren’t a lot of masks with female characters,” Weeks says. “I don’t know why that is. Maybe it’s because men in general like gory, scary costumes.” One exception: Hillary Clinton masks, which were all the rage in 2016.

6. Food costumes are always a hit for Halloween.

At Rasta Imposta, Berman says political and pop culture trends can shift their plans, but one theme is a constant: People love to dress up as food. “We’ve had big success with food items. Bananas, pickles. We did an avocado.”

7. Adding ”sexy” to a Halloween costume doesn’t always work.

It’s a recurring joke that some costume makers only need to add a “sexy” adjective to a design concept in order to make it marketable. While there’s some truth to that—Quintana references Yandy’s “sexy poop emoji” costume—it’s no guarantee of success. “We had a concept for ‘sexy cheese’ that was a no-go,” she says. “'Sexy corn’ didn’t really work at all. ‘Sexy anti-fascist’ didn’t make the cut this year.”

8. People ask for some weird stuff when it comes to Halloween costumes.

In addition to monitoring social media for memes and trends, designers can get an idea of what consumers are looking for by shadowing their online searches. Costumeish.com monitors what people are typing into their search bar to see if they’re missing out on a potential hit. “People search for odd things sometimes,” Weeks says. “People want to be a cactus, a palm tree, they’re looking for a priest and a boy costume. People can be weird.”

9. Halloween costume designers have workarounds for big properties.

Go out to a Halloween party over the past few years and you’re almost guaranteed to run into the Queen of the North. But not every costume maker has the official license for Game of Thrones. What are other companies to do? Come up with a design that sparks recognition without sparking a lawsuit. “Our biggest seller right now is Sexy Northern Queen,” Quintana says. “It’s inspired by a TV show.” But she won’t say which one.

10. People love sharks.

From the clunky Ben Cooper plastic costume from 1975’s Jaws to today, people can’t seem to get enough of shark-themed outfits. “We do a lot of sharks,” Berman says. “Maybe it’s because of Shark Week in the summertime, but sharks always tend to trend. People just like the idea of sharks.”

11. Dead celebrities mean sales.

It may be morbid, but it’s a reality: The high-profile passing of celebrities, especially close to Halloween, can trigger a surge in sales. “Before Robin Williams died, I couldn’t sell a Mork costume for a dollar,” Weeks says. “After he died, I couldn’t not sell it for less than $100.”

12. The Halloween costume business profits from people shopping at the last minute.

Ever wonder why food and other novelty costumes tend to outsell traditional garb like pirates and witches? Because costume shopping for adults is usually done frantically and they don’t have time to compare 25 different Redbeards. “People tend to do it at the very last minute, so we want something that pops out at them,” Berman says. “Like, ‘Oh, I want to be a crab.’”

Weeks agrees that procrastination is profitable. “We make a lot of money on shipping,” he says. “Some people get party invites on the 25th and so they’re paying for next-day air.”

13. It’s not actually a seasonal business.

Everyone we spoke to agreed that the most surprising thing about the Halloween business is that it’s not really seasonal on their end. Costumes are designed year-round, and planning can take between 12 and 18 months. “It’s 365 days a year,” Quintana says. “We’ll start thinking about next Halloween in December.”

This piece was first published in 2017 and republished in 2019.

11 Secrets of Lexicographers

Fotokresba/iStock via Getty Images
Fotokresba/iStock via Getty Images

Merriam-Webster defines a lexicographer as “an author or editor of a dictionary.” The job sounds simple enough, but the work that goes into researching and writing definitions like the one above takes a unique combination of skills. Lexicographers have to be passionate about words without being pretentious, knowledgeable without being overeducated, and analytic enough to treat language like a science while being creative enough to define tricky words like art and love.

To learn more about what goes into being a lexicographer, Mental Floss spoke with a few from the world’s top dictionaries. Here’s what they had to say about where they find new words, what goes into the editing process, and how they really feel about defining literally as “figuratively.”

1. Being a lexicographer doesn't require a specific degree.

There are a number of different paths you can take to get into lexicography. Most people who write and edit dictionaries come from some sort of humanities background, but there’s usually no specific degree or training required to become a lexicographer. Emily Brewster, a lexicographer for Merriam-Webster since 2000, double-majored in linguistics and philosophy. She tells Mental Floss, “A lot of people have an English background. There are some editors who have linguistic backgrounds. But really, when your job is defining the vocabulary of the English language, expertise in any field can apply. We have science editors, we have people who are specialists in chemistry, specialists in law, so any kind of expertise can make you a better definer.”

According to Jesse Sheidlower, a lexicographer who worked for the Oxford English Dictionary and Random House Dictionaries, an education with a focus on lexicography specifically can actually be a turn-off for employers. “There was a university that once offered a degree in lexicography, but no dictionary house would ever hire someone with a degree in lexicography [...] In general, the people who are going to be teaching it that way are probably not experienced practical lexicographers, and the kind of things you need to do the job are rather different than what academics would study if you were studying lexicography.” Students studying lexicography at Université de Lorraine in France, for example, learn about etymology, polysemy (the existence of multiple meanings for one word), and lexicological analysis. A class can provide helpful background on the subject, but it won't necessarily equip learners with the skills and instincts they need to find and define new words.

Too much education, regardless of the subject, can also hurt someone’s chances of working for a dictionary. “In general you want someone with some but not too much training in some kind of general humanities discipline," Sheidlower says. "Not someone with a Ph.D., because people with Ph.D.s tend to think you can spend the rest of your life studying things, and when you’re actually working for a dictionary you have a list of 50 things you have to get done by the end of the week. The fact that one of them or all of them might be super interesting doesn’t mean you can spend three weeks studying the same thing.”

2. Lexicographers don’t decide which words are "proper."

The role of dictionaries is largely misunderstood by the public. Lexicographers don’t decide which words are valid and dictate how they should be used. Rather, they find the words that already exist and do their best to represent how they’re being used in the real world. “This is something non-lexicographers in particular have problems with,” Sheidlower says. “But the role of a dictionary is not to say what is correct in any sort of sense handed down from above. It is to say what is in use in language, and if people are using something different from how it’s used traditionally, that thing is going to go in regardless of whether or not you like it.”

3. Lexicographers know their decisions can create controversy—and not always for the reasons you’d think.

Even if lexicographers don’t think of themselves as linguistic gatekeepers, many people see still them that way. That can cause controversy when a word or definition makes it into the dictionary that people don’t approve of. One recent example is the inclusion of the word they in Merriam-Webster as a non-binary pronoun. “That’s been getting a tremendous amount of attention,” Sheidlower says. But as he explains, the dictionary didn’t make up the usage—it simply acknowledged its existence. “Singular they goes back to the 14th century—even nonbinary they goes back to the 18th century. ... New isn’t necessarily bad, but those things aren’t new.”

Words that fall outside sensitive social and political arenas can also stir outrage. A classic example is defining literally to mean "figuratively." “People hate that, they hate it so much,” Brewster says. “But it’s old, it’s established, and if we didn’t enter it, we’d be saying the word is not used this way, and the word is used this way and it’s been used this way since Charles Dickens. It’s not really our place to make a judgement if a word or a use is a good word. Our job is to report words that are established in the language.”

4. Lexicographers add hundreds of new words to the dictionary each year ...

Language is constantly evolving, which means that a lexicographer’s job never ends. Brewster estimates that roughly 1000 words are added to Merriam-Webster.com each year, including new senses of existing words. The most recent batch consisted of 533 new terms and uses, ranging from highly specific words like non-rhotic (the Bostonian habit of not pronouncing the letter r unless it’s followed by a vowel) to Instagram-friendly slang like vacay.

5. ... But lexicographers also have to be choosy.

More new words enter the lexicon each year than can fit between the covers of even the most comprehensive dictionary. To give readers an up-to-date picture of the English language without overworking themselves, lexicographers have to be selective about which words make the cut. As Brewster explains, every word that goes into the Merriam-Webster dictionary meets certain criteria. “We have to have significant evidence of a word in use over an extended period of time,” she says.

Those standards are a little vague for a reason. Taking the popularity and staying power of a new word into consideration, editors get to decide what counts as “significant evidence” and an “extended period of time” for themselves.

Brewster elaborates, “For example, the verb tweet as in the Twitter sense erupted very suddenly in the language. So that was a case in which very quickly it became clear that our readers were going to be served by having this term be defined. You can contrast that with a term like adorkable, it requires a longer amount of time before it meets that criteria of being in the language for an extended period of time because we don’t want to enter words that nobody’s going to be using in five years.”

6. Lexicographers struggle with words like love.

Lexicography is methodical and scientific work most of the time, but it can get subjective. If you’ve ever had trouble defining a term without using a related word, chances are whoever wrote its entry in the dictionary encountered the same problem. “A term like art or poetry or love, these are notoriously hard to define because their meanings are extremely broad. You can’t pin it down,” Sheidlower says. “The word itch is very hard to define. Trying to define the word itch without using the word scratch is very difficult. I’ll let you think about that one for a moment.” (In case you were wondering, Merriam-Webster defines itch as “an uneasy irritating sensation in the upper surface of the skin usually held to result from mild stimulation of pain receptors.” Pretty spot-on.)

7. Lexicographers rarely argue over words.

If you’re looking to have spirited debates over the value of certain words with your fellow language enthusiasts, lexicography may not be the career for you. Most of the work is done in silence in front of a computer, and conflicts that get more passionate than a politely worded email are rare. “People think we sit around a table and argue about the merits of a word. Or say, ‘Yeah, this word should get in!’ Or ‘Yeah, this word should never get in,’” Brewster says. ”It’s actually very quiet, solitary work. You can make a case for a word, but it’s all in writing. So when I draft a definition for a word, I will say that we have evidence of it dating back as far back as this date, and it’s appeared in all these different types of publications. We’re not very emotional about these things. I think we’re much more biologists than pundits.”

8. Several lexicographers look at each entry.

Putting together a dictionary is collaborative work. According to Brewster, a single word entry must go through several editors before it’s ready for publication. As a definer—what most people think of when they think of a lexicographer—she sets the process in motion. “Being a general definer, my job is to define all the non-technical vocabulary in the language. But that varies really broadly, from economics terms, like a definition for dark money, to pronouns, to prepositions, and also informal terms, like say twerking.”

After she drafts a definition, it also goes through the cross-reference editor (the person who makes sure any other relevant entries are addressed), the pronunciation editor, the etymologist (who traces the word's historical origins), the person who keys it into the system, the copy editor, and the proofreader.

9. Lexicographers promise they aren’t judging the way you speak.

You may assume that someone who makes a living defining words is a stickler for language rules. But lexicographers might understand better than anyone that there’s no one right way to speak English, and the “correct” version of any language is determined by its speakers. “Sometimes when people learn that I work on a dictionary, they worry that I am judging how they write or speak, and nothing could be further from the truth,” Erin McKean, the lexicographer in charge of the online dictionary Wordnik, tells Mental Floss. “I love English, and I love all the different ways to speak and write English. I'm much more likely to ask you to make up a word for me than I am to criticize the words you use!” So if you find yourself in a conversation with a dictionary editor, feel free to use slang and mix up farther and further—you’re in a safe space.

10. Don't ask lexicographers to pick a favorite word.

Lexicographers know more words than the average person, but if you ask them to pick a favorite, they may decline to answer. "You’re not allowed to play favorites," Sheidlower says. "You have to put in words that you dislike, you can’t spend more time researching words that you do like. It’s not personal [...] Just like if you’re a parent, you’re not allowed to say that one child is your favorite, which is generally the metaphor lexicographers will use when they’re asked that question."

11. The internet makes a lexicographer’s job easier.

For most of the job’s history, lexicographers found new words by reading as many books as possible. Reading is still an important part of their work, but thanks to the internet, they have a greater variety of materials to pull from than ever. Emily Brewster mentions Google Books and online corpora—collections of text excerpts from different places, sometimes related to a particular subject—as some of her favorite sources for researching new words and their definitions and origins. But her most reliable resource is a popular social media site. “I really like Twitter in general,” Brewster says. “From Twitter, I get to a huge variety of sources. It’s a really good network for connecting with all kinds of publications.”

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