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Swallows and ravens: birds, or the language of spies?

Illustration for article titled Swallows and ravens: birds, or the language of spies?

It's no secret that spies and secret agents have their own special jargon — one that requires discretion. And not surprisingly, speaking it requires more than spouting pickup lines à la James Bond. Below, a primer of espionage phrases to add to your vocabulary.



During World War II, British propaganda posters warned the public that "careless talk costs lives." Specifically, they warned soldiers about their supposedly conniving — and beautiful — female companions. Keep mum, she's not so dumb! might be the most amusing government warning about the "honeytrap" or "honeypot." The classic cinematic honey trap features a female spy who seduces her target and collects all of his secrets postcoitally.



A "swallow" is how you would refer to the female spy tasked with seducing a target in a honeytrap. And the male version of a swallow? That would be a "raven."


Canary Trap

Slightly less sexy is the "canary trap," which involves doling out different versions of information and seeing which story gets back to you: the ultimate trick for ferreting out a gossipmonger!


Starburst Maneuver

Need to shake the guy tailing you? In the classic "starburst maneuver," a series of identical-looking vehicles traveling in a caravan suddenly split off in different directions — leaving the enemy wondering which car is the decoy, and which carries the goods.


Camp Swampy

The nickname of the CIA's training base. Also colloquially referred to as "The Farm."



Forget baby name books! A "ghoul" is tasked with the morbid job of wandering around graveyards looking for potential agent aliases. Talk about field work.


Pocket Litter

Not unlike the objects featured in Us Weekly's "What's in My Bag?" column, "pocket litter" refers to the odds and ends on a spy's person that legitimize their assumed identity. Fake papers, for instance, are usually made by a spy nicknamed "the cobbler." Random knickknacks are planted as evidence of their imaginary occupation, as are pictures of the little rugrats they have at home. An agent who is out and about in the world without a cover is said to be operating "naked."


Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

The most classic British espionage novel might be John le Carré's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (the first book in the celebrated Karla Trilogy). And let's not forget the recent film adaptation, which features one of our favorite British heavyweights, Mark Strong, whom we last saw driving a particularly nice car. It tells the tale of a mole in the highest level of government intelligence, and its language is peppered with tricky code words:

  • The Circus: The actual building that houses the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), otherwise known as MI6. This is the foreign intelligence service versus MI5, which is the domestic counterintelligence service.
  • Cousins: The branches of intelligence in the United States. CIA!
  • Control: The head of MI6.
  • Mothers: The secretaries working at the Circus.
  • Babysitters: Bodyguards.
  • Code Names: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Poor Man, and Beggar Man are names from an old children's counting game that Control uses to nickname his closest cohorts in his search to flush out the traitors.

Any other top-secret terms I neglected to include? Add them in the comments.

Image by Michael Erazo-Kase

Kaitlin Phillips is a writer living in Manhattan. Her work has appeared in Vice, New York, and n+1.


Read more Good To Be Bad here.

This post is a sponsored collaboration between Jaguar and Studio@Gawker.

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