From John le Carré to Ian Fleming: the language of espionage
Espionage, the practice of governments using spies to obtain political or military secrets from their rivals, derives from the French espionner ‘to spy’, which is also the root of spy (French espion). The clandestine nature of the job means that a number of vaguer euphemisms are commonly employed, such as operative, agent, asset, intelligence officer – even the innocuous term secretary has its origins in the spy trade, as its etymology implies (Latin secretum ‘secret’). Slang terms, however, can be more descriptive, such as spook, referencing the agent’s shadowy existence, or sleeper, used of an undercover agent who has been inactive for a time. A mole is an agent who spends long periods working undercover – just as a mole burrows deep underground – achieving the trust and confidence of a state or organization and passing on confidential information. In the 17th century, spies were also known as flies – a reference to their ability to gain access to private areas, preserved in the expression fly on the wall. Since the 1930s the job of listening to private conversations has been carried out by a concealed recording device known as a bug.
The novels of John le Carré, the pseudonym (from Greek pseudōnymos, ‘false name’) of David Cornwell, a former employee of the British secret services, are a rich source of spying terms. The Oxford English Dictionary even suggests that it was the popularity of le Carré’s novels that led to adoption of mole in the world of espionage, rather than the other way round. The nickname used for the British Secret Service, The Circus, is first recorded in le Carré’s bestseller The Spy who came in from the Cold (1963), referring to its headquarters at Cambridge Circus in London. The title phrase come in from the cold, describing the return of a spy from a period working undercover in enemy territory, was particularly appropriate for spy stories of this era, given its punning allusion to the Cold War. Also first recorded in le Carré’s work is the term Control, used to refer to a spymaster. Center, however, referring to the location from which a spy network is directed, predates le Carré’s novels in the compound Moscow Centre, the headquarters of the Soviet Secret Service.
Unsurprisingly, a number of terms associated with espionage are of Russian extraction. An agent who runs a network of spies in a foreign country is known as a resident – a translation of the Russian rezident, used in the same sense but originally a term for a member of the diplomatic service. Disinformation, the practice of spreading deliberately false information – also known as black propaganda and more recently fake news – is from Russian dezinformacija. Also of Russian origin is Smersh, the popular name of the Russian counter-espionage organization, set up during the Second World War with responsibility for ensuring security within the Soviet intelligence service. Despite its rather comic-sounding name, its origins are rather more sinister – it is an abbreviation of Russian smert shpionam, which means ‘death to spies’. Its earliest appearance in English was in the first of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, Casino Royale (1953).
The Bond novels are another rich vein of espionage terms; Fleming himself worked for Naval Intelligence during the Second World War and drew upon his experience in the books. The phrase for your eyes only – a label that had been added to classified documents since the mid-19th century – became more widely adopted following its appearance as the title of the eighth James Bond novel in 1960. Bond’s encounter with Tiger Tanaka, head of the Japanese secret service, in You Only Live Twice (1964) introduced his readers to terms associated with Ninjutsu, the Japanese art of stealth and camouflage, originally developed as a form of military espionage but later used for training warriors or ninjas (Japanese nin ‘stealth’ + sha ‘agent’) – a word first recorded in the OED in the Bond novel. As well as having to confront these highly-trained operatives, Bond must negotiate the nightingale floor – a wooden floor that chirps like a nightingale when an intruder walks across it. But, perhaps most challenging is the game of Rock, Paper, Scissors that he must play against his host. This game, a classic method of settling disputes in school playgrounds today, originates in the Japanese game Janken (from Japanese ken ‘fist’), so-called because the players call jan-ken-pon to signal the beginning of a round. So, if you’re planning a career working undercover, it might be worth brushing up on your rock-paper-scissors skills.