Spy Speak

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.

Ruth: You realise spies don't really talk that way.
Nathan: I know. Just trying to bring back the cool.


Speaking in code. Not only spies, but anyone in a secret-ish organization having a reasons to be discreet—like La Résistance with code phrases, a Man In Black using metaphor, a hit squad, etc. -- might do this. A form of Cryptic Conversation.

Usually one of these three:

  1. Key words, or replacing people's names with common items, much like Double-Speak, but can be less vague. This is often parodied by the people speaking in complete non-sequiturs.
    Agent Bob: The Moles snuck into The Garden last night.
    Agent Alice: What's The Gardener's response?
    Agent Bob: He said to send The Exterminator.
    Agent Alice: May God have mercy on us all.
  2. A Metaphor, also known as "Open Code", similar to Unusual Euphemism and Trouble Entendre, with words and themes replacing the business of the organization, like the following:
    The Gardener: My garden is full of weeds this year, the herbicide isn't working.
    The Exterminator: Perhaps you should use a shear to clip the weeds.
    The Gardener: Shears are too indiscriminate; besides, weeds must be pulled out by the roots. Perhaps you could come and pull them out, for the usual fee?
  3. Sign/Countersign, or completely unrelated phrases meant to look like a casual conversation.
    Agent D: They said it would rain tomorrow.
    The Exterminator: You can't trust the weatherman, not in the summer.
    Agent D: It's good it will be autumn soon, then.
    The Exterminator: (*pfft*) It's good it will be fall soon, then.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the randomness of these kinds of spy speak, a completely unrelated civilian will get embroiled in whatever the plot is by randomly getting the code words, Sign Countersign, or metaphor right. Alternatively, a character might point out that they're doing this under unnecessary circumstances, and the codeword usage is just pointless.

Subtrope to Double Meaning. See also The Password Is Always Swordfish, Attack Pattern Alpha, Military Alphabet, Talking Through Technique and Reporting Names. May result in Mistaken for Badass.

Examples of Spy Speak include:


  • In a Priceline commercial William Shatner and a prospective customer exchange Sign/Countersign phrases.

Customer: The eagle flies at dawn.
Shatner: The monkey eats custard.


"Does the red robin crow at dusk?"
"Yes, but only in the shade of the big elk tree."
"If it's raining in Brussels . . ."
"It must be snowing in Spain."
Then a third man breaks in with "The circus elephant has lost its way," which puzzles the first two men right up to the point where they see the actual circus elephant.


Anime and Manga

  • Death Note
    • An ad hoc variant when Matsuda is accosted by the Yotsuba group. This (slightly paraphrased) conversation takes place over mobile phones:

L: Hey man, wanna go out drinking tonight?
Matsuda: Uh, sorry, I can't tonight.
L: What? Don't tell me your wallet's in trouble again?
Matsuda: Yeah, that's it, I'm in big trouble with money right now.

This, naturally, meant he was in trouble.
    • More subtle version: Light calls Mikami, and manages to give him very careful directions as to how to act as the latest Kira... without ever tipping off his dinner partner.
  • Fullmetal Alchemist
    • The heroes fight a truly ghoulish Government Conspiracy, and as such have to improvise Spy Speak whenever there's even a slight chance of the walls having ears.

Roy: Elizabeth was stolen by another man!

As evidenced above, Mustang's version is comprised almost entirely of talk about his many, many girlfriends. Who, incidentally, by the end of the manga pretty clearly utterly fail to exist. Most of the few actual women he's seen with turn out to be agents with his foster mother's information network.
    • Also, alchemical research is often written in code to make it difficult for the wrong people to decipher it.
    • There's a lovely one which consists of Roy and Riza discussing a bunch of friends at lunch. The first initials of the names Riza mentions Roy spells out (in the loo) to convey the shocking Reveal: SELIM BRADLEY IS HOMUNCULUS.
  • Full Metal Panic! The Second Raid. During briefing, one soldier mentions the "Cretan paradox" when a Cretan (someone from the island of Crete) says that all Cretans are liars. When Mithril realizes during a mission that they got an information leak, Kalinin invokes this conversation, secretly telling the team that they are about to confuse the enemy by him giving orders and the team doing the exact opposite. It works.
  • Higurashi no Naku Koro ni: Local Creepy Child Rika likes to discuss the activities of "cats" that are quite prone to doing things.
  • The first episode of Cowboy Bebop has the Red Eye/Bloody Eye dealers speaking in code to identify themselves as buyers and sellers. Makes a brief return in a later episode when Gren and Vicious speak in code to arrange a meeting point for their deal. Spike, who is trying to listen in, is unable to tell where they'll be and has to wait until the deal goes sour and stuff starts blowing up before he can find them.

Asimov: I'll have a beer.
Asimov's Girlfriend: And I'll have a Bloody Mary, make it a double.
Bartender: I've got the vodka, but I'm all out of tomato juice.
Asimov: I'm sure there's one can in the back. (they both go to the back room to talk terms)


Comic Books

  • A comic about a spy contained these lines:

Spy: Shhh! My aunt has a sharp-witted ranger!
Guy with sunglasses: Are you crazy or what??


Right-Eye: The chimera has three sets of teeth.
Eugene: ...I'm sorry?
Right-Eye: I said, "The chimera has three sets of teeth."
Eugene: Uh, well, I suppose it must take a long time for them to floss, then.
Right-Eye: What?
Eugene: I'm just saying, they probably get quite a bit of food stuck in between.
Right-Eye: I don't think you heard me. I said, "The chimera--
Eugene: Yes, yes, I heard you just fine. It simply doesn't make any more sense upon repetition. I mean, I am an important wizard. I don't have time to sit around a strange tavern on a rainy afternoon and discuss the assorted dental endowments of magical beasts. Take your bizarre oral fixation somewhere else before you scare off the guy who asked me to meet him here.
Right-Eye: Look, I can see the letter I sent you from over here. Read the part right after where I wrote, "You will know me when I say the phrase, 'The chimera has three sets of teeth.'"
Eugene: Ummm... "Then you will verify your identity by saying, 'Then its bite is thrice as deadly.'"
Right-Eye: Thank you! Geez! Was that so hard?
Eugene: "Thrice." Interesting word choice.
Right-Eye: Just let it drop.


Fan Works


"Remember I told you about Billy? It's him and his son Jacob. I'm going to stay and be sociable, and make sure they eat a nice dinner. I might not be over today at all. So please don't be alarmed and come wondering what the holdup is." Please don't come and activate the wolves, I meant, and hoped he'd understand.

  • In a passage from an abandoned early version of Drunkard's Walk VIII, main character Douglas Sangnoir reveals that he has a Type 3 exchange to use in case he meets a Time Traveling version of himself:

I looked at the guy with my face. "Huh. Well, can't say I haven't anticipated something like this."
He nodded. "Right. 'Biff has the almanac.'"
I blinked and said, "'Oh, fuck.'"
He grinned. "Code and countercode given and accepted."
Hermione -- his Hermione -- looked at us incredulously. "You had a prearranged signal in case of this situation?"
Other-Doug looked smug. "Hermione, in the circles I... we... travel in at home, the arrow of time is at most a general guideline instead of a natural law."

  • A classic shows up Hermione Granger and the Boy Who Lived when a set of adult polo players come to Harworts to watch a polo match in first year -- and then offer some very cryptic advice to Harry, advice it takes Hermione months to decipher.

Films -- Animation

  • Done in Cars 2 between Holly Shiftwell and Mater—she identifies Mater as a fellow spy when he correctly answers obscure questions about the air cooling used by Volkswagen engines.

Films -- Live-Action

  • Almost every dialogue in The limits of control is made about this trope.
  • Parodied in The Ipcress File. At the beginning of the movie Harry's spying on a building and reads out an innocuous sounding list, which we automatically assume is code - but it isn't, and what he's watching really is that innocuous.
  • In Léon a.k.a. Léon: The Professional, he calls himself a "Cleaner", instead of "Assassin" or "Hitman". So someone might ask him to "clean" someone, rather than "kill" them. That's actually a Shout-Out to Nikita, where Jean Reno played the 'cleaner' i.e. a character who specialized in destroying the evidence and disposing of bodies after the hit.
  • Partially parodied in The Saint:

Simon: To Spider: You've got the recipe, where's my dough?
Tretiak: To Human Fly: Recipe incomplete. Cake won't rise. Hence, no dough.


Agent A: Can I borrow a match?
Agent B: I use a lighter.
Agent A: That's better still.
Agent B: Until they go wrong.


Bond: In London, April's a Spring month.
Jack Wade: Oh yeah? And what are you, the weatherman? I mean, for crying out loud... another stiff-ass Brit, with your secret codes and your passwords. One of these days you guys are gonna learn just to drop it.
(Bond then holds him at gunpoint until he gives the correct response before introducing himself)

    • A straight example in Diamonds Are Forever. When Tiffany Case arrives at the circus to pick up the diamonds, the CIA agent alerts everyone.

Agent: This is Quarterback. Operation Passover, commence. Quarterback to Tight End. Operation Passover, commence.


Christmas Jones: Do you wanna put that in English for those of us who don't speak spy?

      • Funnily enough, Bond's previous statement is rather straightforward and clear
  • Parodied in Hot Shots Part Deux. The radio controller is trying to warn the good guys that enemies are about to attack, using phrases like "The vultures are circling the carcass", "The pit bull is out of the cage", "The Crips are raiding the liquor store". The guy on the other end has no idea what he's talking about.
    • The first phrase used is "Indians on the warpath in your area." This line (and the three prior lines) are a Shout-Out to a similar scene in The Guns of Navarone which used almost identical dialogue (see below).
  • The Guns of Navarone. During radio communication, the team's command base uses coded language to send information.

"High Flight reports Indians on warpath in your territory." [Aerial reconnaissance has seen German naval units in your vicinity.]


Guard: Howdy.
Dutton: Howdy Doody.
Guard: You got the time?
Dutton: My watch stopped at 11:46.
Guard: Darn shame.
Dutton: Must be the heat.

  • Used in the Bourne Ultimatum. It is revealed that the closing lines to the previous movie were in fact impromptu Spy Speak, and that Bourne had somehow deduced the exact meaning of the code without knowing anything about the place being talked about. The eavesdropping villains take a long time to figure it out in spite of actually knowing the secret already.
  • Star Trek II the Wrath of Khan had a variant on this. Spock and Kirk, discussing repair estimates to the Enterprise, used a code that substituted days for hours. This made Khan (who was eavesdropping on the conversation) believe Kirk's ship was hopelessly crippled.
  • In the epic clown movie Shakes the Clown, evil clown Binky is informed of his successful drug purchase by one of his henchmen with, "The dolphins are in the jacuzzi."
  • Jumpin Jack Flash "Dogs barking. Can't fly without umbrella."
  • Clear and Present Danger: Spy Speak pervades the film. "Coffee" means cocaine. The special forces soldiers refer to planting a bomb and detonating it as "The chicken is in the pot." -- "Cook it." respectively. And so on by many characters. The President starts the whole mess with "The course of action I'd suggest is a course of action I can't suggest." This contrasts his Title Drop in the same scene, and his hypocrisy is called out later in the film.

Cutter: He [the president] can't be clear when clarity is exactly what he wants to avoid.


"The sun is shining..."
"but the ice is slippery."


"Know any good white basketball players?"
"There ARE no good white basketball players."
"Who do you favor in the Virginia Slims Tournament?"
"In women's tennis, I always root against the heterosexual."


Hanley: This is Rah-Rah Sewell, one of our best fullbacks. Learning to be a dick. Inspector Oliver, Scotland Yard.
Sewell: Scotland Yard -- Gee, that sort of sends me wacky. Well, the Brain said PDQ. Better breeze in.
Oliver: ... He talks in code, doesn't he?

  • In one of the The Pink Panther movies, Inspector Clouseau asks Chief Inspector Dreyfus what his code name is. The Chief Inspector sputters out that he doesn't have one. Inspector Clouseau, satisfied, replies that only the REAL Chief Inspector Dreyfus would know he doesn't have a code name.
  • The Quest of the Delta Knights: The Delta Knights use Sign/Countersign to identify each other.
  • In Nick Fury, the TV movie:

Nick Fury: Beauty is trust and trust is beauty. That's all ye on this Earth know and all ye need to know.
Gail Runciter: Is that part of the recognition code?
Nick Fury: No, I just felt like saying it.

  • Ronin is full of this, as per the opening exchange between Vincent and Sam:

Sam: So, are you labor or management?
Vincent: If I was management, I would not offer you a cigarette!

No surprise that David Mamet co-wrote the screenplay.
  • In Captain America: The First Avenger, when Peggy takes Steve to the secret military lab, she has a casual conversation with an elderly lady about the weather.
    • Also used in the 1990 film, but they talk about the food.
  • Red Dawn briefly has a radio message mentioning "the chair is against the wall" and "John has a long mustache". Neither is mentioned again in the film, existing purely to imply there's more resistance groups than just the Wolverines, but both are allusions to messages from Radio Londres.


  • Tom Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia
    • Anytime Mikhail Bakunin is around.

Bakunin: The Green Canary flies at Dawn!

    • Even funnier because of his Large Ham egoist tendancies:

Bakunin: (confidentially) The green canary flies tonight -- ten o'clock -- usual place -- pass it on.
Sazonov: I told you.

  • Brilliantly parodied in the Discworld book, Guards Guards: a secret cultist goes through a length of sign countersign for a password, only to find that he's talking to a different secret cult, when he gets some of it confused.

"Surely the cagéd whale knows nothing of the mighty depths."
"Nope, bean soup it is."

  • Subverted in Harry Potter, where the two men discussing wizards, witches, Quidditch and the Ministry of Magic are suspected of using code, but actually mean exactly what they say. (Actually assigning the terms "Muggles", "Wizards", and "Ministry" a one-to-one relationship with gangs or government branches yields some really convoluted politics.)
  • Also parodied in John Dies at the End:

"Dave? This is John. Your pimp says bring the crack shipment tonight, or he'll be forced to stick you. Meet him where we buried the Korean whore. The one without the goatee."
That was code. It meant "Come to my place as soon as you can, it's important." Code, you know, in case the phone was bugged.
"John, it's three in the--"
"--Oh, and don't forget, tomorrow is the day we kill the President."
He was gone. That last part was code for, "Stop and pick me up some cigarettes on the way."

  • There's a Larry Niven story of humanity's first contact with aliens, when the Kzin attack the "unarmed" starship Angel's Pencil. Having leaked the news out of ARM HQ, the protagonists on Earth are discussing this: "So, you think Angel sliced the bread with the pencil?" says one, while thinking that it's difficult to communicate when you're making up your code as you go.
  • Dave Barry does this when his directions to a point of interest in Sweden ends with "tell the man standing on the corner that the oyster owns a fine wristwatch. He'll know what to do."
  • In one of The Wheel of Time books, Taim sends Rand a note that reads, "I picked that bush myself. A small bush, and thorny, but a good number of berries nonetheless." It's an extended metaphor. The "bush" is the Two Rivers, the backwater region where Rand grew up. "Berries" are men with the potential to channel. "Small" and "thorny" mean exactly what they look like.
  • In The Plant That Ate Dirty Socks, Norman, realizing the weirdness of his home situation, comes up with the idea of using code words such as "ice cream" for "sock", "chocolate" for "dirty", "cat" for "plant", etc. A nosy girl overhears this and asks him about why his cats eat so much ice cream.
  • Variant #1 happens from time to time in Animorphs, usually over the phone.
  • V.F.D. in A Series of Unfortunate Events uses the "sign/countersign" form for "volunteers" to identify each other; for instance, "I'm sorry, I didn't realize this was a sad occasion" is answered with "The world is quiet here."
  • John Le Carre books are full of this. Particularly The Quest for Karla.
  • The Tim Powers novel Declare involves lots of code phrases and recognition exchanges, some of which turn out to have occult significance.
  • Vernor Vinge's short story Run Bookworm Run takes this to an extreme:

Super-intelligent chimpanzee: Why does the goodwife like Dutch Elm Disease for tea?
Ordinary-looking section of wall: I don't know, I just work here.
Super-intelligent chimpanzee: Well find out before her husband does.

This is repeated over thousands of miles of such walls, each with different codes.
  • Kim from Kipling has an actually smart one. You must stop before a few specific words. You must insert those words into innocent small talk, then pause before the word. Your partner must do the same with another word. "It was a nice wedding. The bride had that beautiful necklace with the great... turquoise." "Oh, how expensive. How was the food? Was there... tarkeean?"
  • In the Robert Heinlein short story "Methuselah's Children", the Howard Families use this identification routine:

"Life is short."
"But the years are long."
"Not 'While the Evil Days Come Not.'"

  • Spoofed in Rebel Dream. The Insiders don't actually use sign/countersign methods, preferring to stick to known members and use Jedi and YVH droids to screen for infiltrators. This doesn't stop Kell from making up his own.

"No countersign. What kind of holodrama is this, anyway?"

  • In Freakonomics, the author tells how the Ku Klux Klan used this. A klansman who went to another city and was looking for other klansmen (in a bar, for example) would ask people "Do you know a Mr Ayak?" (=Are You A Klansman?) The answer he expected would be "Yes, and I also know a Mr Akai." (= A Klansman Am I.) They also used many codewords by simply substituting Kl at the beginning of words, like Kloran (from Quran) for their ritual book. Which tended to sound pretty silly.
  • In the Lord Peter Wimsey mystery Murder Must Advertise, the drug ring that Charles Parker is investigating uses "Nutrax for the nerves" as a password. It can be written on a note, worked into casual conversation or printed on a book or newspaper you are carrying - doesn't matter. Give the password in any form, and they'll hand you a package of drugs. This gets a minor character in trouble halfway through the book, as he unwittingly gives the password and gets handed half a pound of high-class heroin without realizing it.
  • The Dark Tower: The gang of Greys that kidnap Jake in The Waste Lands use a sign-countersign kind of password for entering their hideout.
  • Subverted in, of all places, the Conan novel "Hour of the Dragon". Conan attempts to sneak into a Stygian temple disguised as a pilgrim, but realizes that the pilgrims must give a secret hand signal to the temple guard to gain entrance. Upon realizing this, Conan, being Conan, just kills the guard and walks in anyway.
  • In the first book of Detectives in Togas, the boy Rufus is in prison and about to be executed, but manages to send a strange message to the others: "Rip off the red wolf's sheep's clothing!" He's talking about the "seer" Lukos (Greek for "wolf"), whose name is written in red on his house, who's the Big Bad and framed Rufus. Lukos is really the bald ex-consul Tellus, who wears a wig when playing Lukos.
  • Whenever Harry Dresden has to call the Wardens (which, at that point, he's already in deep shit), he has to do several sign-countersign routines in quick succession for the Wardens to confirm that it is, in fact, Harry. Despite realizing the necessity of it all, it still bugs the crap out of him.
  • A brief exchange shows up in the Ryan Verse book Clear and Present Danger

Agent: It may rain today.
CIA: If so, I have a coat.
Agent: A cold rain, perhaps.
CIA: The coat has a liner.

The agent then remarks that it actually is supposed to rain later, complimenting whoever it was that came up with that code.
  • In The Belgariad, the Nadrak Yarblek gets into the royal palace in Boktor by telling a member of the Drasnian Intelligence that "the salmon is running late". The second time he uses this phrase, the Drasnian spy remarks to the Queen that he "takes a very keen interest in the salmon runs".

Live-Action TV


Quirley: *knocks* The weasel runs at midnight.

  • Used quite a bit in Allo Allo.
    • René repeatedly gets told codewords, which are generally misused, forgotten, given to the wrong person, and such. Commonly he'll skip straight past them with a line like "I know it's you, you old fool, now just give me the batteries."
    • A classic example in episode 1 had the other person unable to deliver the line (asking for matches), as his cigarette is lit before he can say anything. Not only that, but René couldn't give the correct response ("I don't have any matches") as he had been given a box of them only a minute earlier by Lieutenant Gruber. And just to top it off, René ends up Mistaken for Gay.

"Is he one of us?" "No, he's one of them!"

    • The code-talk over the radio is actually analyzed by the Gestapo at one point and found to make a twisted sort of sense.
  • Hogan's Heroes varies between speaking plainly and using code, apparently completely at random.
  • Polish spy drama Cult Classic Stawka Większa Niż Życie has this famous exchange: "The best chestnuts are [to be found] on Pigalle Square." "Susan likes them only in the autumn."
  • Every Mission Impossible episode began with one of these. Jim Phelps would go somewhere and have an innocuous conversation. When he would insist on a detail, they took him to the self-destructing tape.
  • Monty Python's Flying Circus
    • In a sketch, a man goes into a bookshop and the owner keeps talking to him like this.
    • Another Python sketch features a trio of KGB agents who get confused by their own code:

Bag: Who's giving the orders round here?
Grip: I am. I'm senior to you.
Bag: No, you're not. You're a greengrocer, I'm an insurance salesman.
Grip: Greengrocers are senior to insurance salesman.
Bag: No they're not!
Wallet: Cool it. I'm an ice-cream salesman and I am senior to both of you.
Bag: You're an ice-cream salesman? I thought you were a veterinarian.
Wallet: I got promoted. Let's go.


Spy: In Leningrad the boulevards are bigger than Paris, yes?
Guy on train: I've never been in Leningrad.
Spy: You have the briefcase, you are White Bear?

    • As Trigger Happy TV is a hidden camera show, they occasionally parody it further. For instance, if the spy discovers that the person he is talking to is not "Grey Squirrel" then he will get up and move on, followed by a man in a full body grey squirrel costume coming and sitting in his place a few moments later, much to the confusion of bystanders.
  • Law and Order and other shows dealing with cops trying to catch Mafia dons run into Variant #1 a lot: the don orders a hit, the cops and DAs argue that it means murder-for-hire, and the defense attorney plaintively says "He was just asking about an apartment!" (Or whatever the on-the-face conversation was.)
  • Parodied in the series Adderly: supervisor Greenspan, convinced his office is bugged, demands that his staff speak entirely in convoluted code-phrases (even when discussing whether they want sugar in their coffee). Adderly replies with an annoyed, "Dead parrots rarely sing."; Greenspan pulls out his code book and laboriously translates this, word by word, to mean, "This... conversation... is... ridiculous."
  • Parodied on the game show Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?. In one type of clue, this girl spy would tell Greg something that sounds like code, but it's not: it's expanded to be the clue pointing to the next location.
  • L.A. Law: Douglas Brackman is ordering sushi for the first time and asks the beautiful woman sitting next to him for advice, using terms from the menu such as "hand roll." She's an undercover vice cop and arrests him for solicitation of prostitution—dropping the charges in great embarrassment when shown the menu.
  • Burn Notice
    • Lampshaded when Michael has to leave a message for the man he was supposed to meet but is called away. He mentions that spy speak is only successful when the other party can figure out what the message means, otherwise you're just wasting everyone's time. Fortunately, the other man does figure out that "John 3:14" written on the sidewalk in chalk means "St. John's Cathedral at 3:14pm."
    • Lampshaded a second time when Michael realizes his phone is bugged. He ties up the surveillance team by calling random phone numbers and saying nonsensical things to whoever picks up, counting on the fact that the surveillance team will assume that he's relaying information in code and will waste hours of time trying to figure out what he's relaying.
    • Another episode has Michael getting information from his team, which is disguised as a random conversation. Maddie rebuffs Jesse's offer to explain and translate the code herself:

"Mr.Vane means there's a weather vane. Gray hair means a gray roof, and presidential refers to a white house."


Naomi: I'm sorry, George. Tell my sister I love her.

  • Mob-specific Spy Speak is a fixture on The Sopranos.
    • For instance, "we're bringing in some tailors from Sicily to do the job, why don't you see about getting them some scissors."
    • Also lampshaded, subverted, and parodied to hell and back at various points.

Anthony Infante: Listen, as far as that thing goes... the coffee with the chicory...
Johnny Sack: The fuck is that?
Anthony Infante: Oh shit. I suck at talkin' like this John, I'm sorry. Our friend with the stomach.
Johnny Sack: In town or near home?
Anthony Infante: Your neighbor. A.S...?
Johnny Sack: Yeah, all right. Just say "the thing I asked you to do." The coffee with the fuckin' chicory... Is he gonna get it for me?
Anthony Infante: Yes. Bad news is that he wants ten cups for himself. Not seven.
Johnny Sack: Alright. Done. Did you pick up the birthday cake for Gin with the marzipan flowers?
Anthony Infante: The... stuff behind the pool...?
Johnny Sack: No, an actual fuckin' cake! It's her birthday!

  • The Benny Hill Show
    • There's a sketch in which Hill is sitting on a park bench between two Spy Speakers. Faced with their "bizarre" code phrases, he would inject things like "I've got a lovely bunch of coconuts."
    • That's not the only sketch making fun of Spy Speak; there's also an extended exchange in another spoof with a trio of spies in Istanbul exchanging increasingly nonsensical code phrases, some with Accidental Innuendo.
  • Col. Flagg on Mash uses this in official communications, though also in regular speech. Favors the unrelated phrases variety.

Flagg: Alright, Corporal, read back what you've got.
Radar: Uh, yes sir. To the Far East Export Import Company, 27 Zapata Circle, Ti-joo-ana, Mexico.
Flagg: Right, go on.
Radar: Yes sir. Mary had a little lamb. Stop. My dog has fleas. Stop.
Flagg: Good, there's a bit more. Mairzy doats and dozey doats, and I'll be home for Christmas. Got that?
Radar: Uh... in just a moment, sir. Uh, okay.
Flagg: Sign it: Your loving son, Queen Victoria.


Lorelai: (answering the phone) Independence Inn.
Emily: I need the hat rack.
Lorelai: (mysteriously) The fish flies at night!
Emily: What?
Lorelai: I don't know. Who is this?

  • Happened at least once on Criminal Minds. Fortunately the team genius was the person they needed to contact.
  • House:
    • In "All In", Wilson parodies this when House phones him while playing cards.

House: Keep your answers short and discreet. Is Cuddy still playing?
Wilson: The chicken is still in Picadilly Square.

    • Played (somewhat) straighter in "The Down Low" where House gets around a drug dealer's reluctance to talk about his cocaine business by referring to the product as "Culottes".

House: So do you cut the culottes yourself or do they get cut by the individual tailors on the street?

  • Get Smart
    • Parodied, naturally, in the first episode. Maxwell Smart, Agent 86, who has yet to meet 99, has been told by the Chief that Agent 99 will approach Max in a public location by informing him of one team beating another in baseball. Unfortunately, that team actually manages to beat the other team on the day before, so everybody is saying it. Max almost ignores her until she says the score was 99 to 86. And the fact that it was "Mets win double header" that was such a remarkable headline might be a Take That to the pre-'69 "Lovable Losers".
    • Also spoofed with the ridiculous sign/countersign when Max first meet Hymie.

Hymie: The blue sun melts the red snow.
Smart: And the purple water runs up hill.

  • Babylon 5
  • A Bit of Fry and Laurie has a sketch in which "Good morning" is used as Spy Speak. It doesn't work very well.
  • In The Sandbaggers, whenever anyone is reporting in from the field, the conversations are always heavily couched in metaphor. On the other hand, the speech avoids the sign/countersign form, and the "disguise" is a light one—usually something along the lines of a manager speaking to his salesmen in the field. Apart from the true nature of their "business," the roles are in fact strongly analogous.
  • Paul Merton is fond of this trope. When A Rare Sentence comes up on Have I Got News for You, he will often say it sounds like something spies would use as code. And his TV show had a sketch where the Reveal Shot at the end showed that the pond where the two spies were feeding ducks as they had their cryptic conversation was entirely surrounded by other guys in trench coats and fedoras doing the same thing.
  • Parodied in a Not the Nine O'Clock News sketch where it turned out that only one of the men involved was a spy; the other was cruising. ("Spy? Spy? No boyfriend of mine goes out to work!")
  • This Armstrong and Miller sketch was set in a tanning salon, which used far too obvious Spy Speak, such as "I'd like to use a sunbed" and "Do you do spray tanning" as their codewords, leading to some very confused people.
  • In an early Family Ties episode, Elyse's brother Ned(played by Tom Hanks), a high-ranking corporate exec, embezzled funds from his company in order to sabotage a company closure that would put hundreds of people out of business. At one point he answered the phone, "The falcon has landed. The fat man walks alone. Repeat: The falcon has landed. The fat man walks alone."
  • The Palace: In the first episode, Superintendent Bayfield informs Prince Richard of his father's passing with the words "tower bridge." Presumably they settled on the signal long ago in case the news needed to be broken in a public location, such as the nightclub bathroom where the scene occurs.
    • In Real Life, all the senior royal's funerals are planned well in advance, as befits such a complicated ceremony. To make it easier to talk about, each funeral is assigned the name of a bridge as a code name. The Queen Mother's was called "Tay Bridge" after a bridge in her Scottish homeland. The Sovereign's funeral is always code-named "Tower Bridge".

Newspaper Comics

  • There's a FoxTrot strip where Peter and Denise have a phone conversation in Spy Speak ("The heavy flag flaps not at night."); the final panel shows Jason, who has a complete wiretapping rig, telling Marcus "I think they're onto us.".
  • Mad Magazine did a satire on Mission Impossible skewering about all the standard spy craft in it. In this satire, Jim got his orders from a coke machine in a cinema lobby, which burst into flames. A couple in the background, watching all of this said, "That's the most suspicious thing I've seen in my life." From then on, when ever something "spy-ee" took place, there was a couple observing it who said the same thing.
  • At the start of one arc in Peanuts, Snoopy gets a letter that consists of three paw prints. "It must be from the Head Beagle," he muses, "it's in code!" The next day's strip reveals that it says "Thompson is in Trouble!"

Recorded and Stand-up Comedy

  • Bill Bailey claims dentists talk in Spy Speak to avoid terrifying patients with what they actually mean ("Fetch me THE WIDOWMAKER!"). He joins in with "The Pheasant Has No Agenda".
  • Used in the joke about the secret agent whose contact is living in one of those Welsh villages where lots of people have the same surname, so they are distinguished by referring to their occupation. The secret agent has just got off the train and is speaking to the station master:

Agent: Where can I find Mr. Jones?
Station Master: Ah, well, there are lots of Joneses here, you see. There's Jones the Milk, Jones the Post, Jones the Baker -- why, my name is Jones!
Agent: "The last swallow of summer is winging his way over the horizon!"
Station Master: Ah, it's Jones the Spy you want!


Tabletop Games

  • As Delta Green is all about the top secret inter-departmental conspiracy that deals with the horrors of the Cthulhu Mythos, there's a fair bit of this. For instance, the most common way to let an agent know they've got a mission is to call them up and say, "You are invited to a night at the opera."

Video Games


Map salesman: Excuse me, do you have a cousin named Sven?
Guybrush: No, but I once had a barber named Dominique.
Map salesman: Close enough.


Man: Boy, the forests of Timber sure have ch-changed!
Squall: But the owls are still around.

    • You can screw it up by saying "Moogles" or "Chocobos" instead of owls, but he recognizes you anyway... and your SeeD rank drops.
  • Final Fantasy II plays this trope straight, requiring one to get a code from NPC A and give it to NPC B every now and then. This led to its Broken Base among fans.
  • Metal Gear Solid 3, as a prequel title, has one of the big questions of MGS2 as a call sign for Snake to identify himself to ADAM: "Who are the patriots?" The correct reply "The La Li Lu Le Lo" (which is like the Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So in Japanese) also explains how that phrase became an alternate name for the Patriots. Since Snake and ADAM were among the founders of the organization they later called "The Patriots".
  • One of the missions in No One Lives Forever involves exchanging these codephrases with several deep cover spies in East Germany. However, since Cate Archer, the player/protagonist, is a woman in the pre-feminist 1960's, all of the code phrases are crass come-ons from the spies and "witty" shootdowns from Cate. Most of them are at least apologetic about it.
  • Christopher Mills uses this to get in contact with Garcian Smith in Killer7. Whenever he has a new assignment for him, he leaves a message on his answering machine, pretending to be calling around on behalf of the Republic Party (to prevent wire tapping), which serves as a signal for Harman to come see him at the overpass.
  • In Leisure Suit Larry II, Larry's hapless My Hovercraft Is Full of Eels attempt to woo a Spanish-speaking woman happen to be the sign/countersign to land him a microfilm full of state secrets and the pursuit of KGB agents who were supposed to receive it.

Larry: My pencil is long, hard and yellow.
Secret Agent Woman: Thank God, I've been wanting to pass this on forever.

  • In indie game Mount and Blade, you can sometimes get quests from your lords or king to receive spy's reports from enemy towns, in which you have to sneak past the border into the rival town, run around randomly reciting whatever phrase the lord or king had you memorize (from a list), looking like an idiot, until you find the spy.
  • In Pizza Tycoon, you can buy weapons from the mob (to wreck your competitors' places). Naturally, this is illegal, so you can't just ask for them; if you do, the dealer sics the cops on you. Instead, you have to order ice cream... at thousands of dollars a "scoop".
  • In a Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas cutscene, you overhear government agent Mike Toreno's radio conversation:

Mike Toreno: Roger that, Big Monkey, I got a 13-6 fat vulture. Need to acquire a drowning baby. Over. In 15 by the moon. Break your heart. Over and out.

  • In a Sam and Max episode, they are told to say the phrase "Does the carpet match the drapes" to another agent. The response the other agent is supposed to give: "Why I never...!" and slap them on the cheek.
  • There is a sidequest in Dragon Age involving gaining entrance to a secret meeting using the phrase "the griffins will rise again". The Warden has the option of being silly and saying either "sausage" or "the grey nug flies north for the winter" instead.
  • In Dragon Age II, Snarky!Hawke has some fun with this:

"Oooh, cloak and dagger phrases! How about... the queasy crow... flies at midnight?"

  • In one of the sidequests in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Jensen has to meet a contact to pick up an autopsy report. The contact, who is obviously a geek who is just doing things this way because he takes the whole thing too seriously, is supposed to be greeted by the code phrase "Life and death have their determined appointments." Jensen can play it professionally and use the phrase like he's supposed to. Alternately, (and hilariously) he can dismiss the whole thing saying "Something something, death and taxes. Confucius." Or he can just walk up to the contact and demand the information.

Web Animation


Ralph: The crow forgets his luggage!
Jeff: What?!


Web Comics

  • It's not really spies, but in Questionable Content, Faye is on the phone with her mother while she's having lunch with Marten. At the end of the conversation, she says, "The peaches are MOST DEFINITELY NOT RIPE. Goodbye." She then explains that it's their code word just in case Faye was taken against her will.
    • Later, Bubbles (as a formerly-military robot) used this making fun of Samantha.
  • General Protection Fault: Fooker receives a message in spy speak, but Subverted replies in plain English in this strip.
  • Shelly tries it in Scary Go Round, but it doesn't help that she's a bit of a Cloudcuckoolander:

Shelly: Red Rover, this is Danger Bunny! The owl is in his tree! Also, Danger Bunny needs a tetanus shot!
Mike: The what? "The scallop is entering the briny deep?" Shelley, I think the idea is that the code is pre-agreed.


"She says, plan gamma acknowledged, the meerkats are in the bag. So we're good?"
"That depends. Do you see an actual bag of meerkats?"
"Then we're probably good."


Sabine-as-Azurite: (whispering) Psssssst! "Beware the green monkey."
Nale-as-Elan: (whispering) "He barks at midnight."


Western Animation


Man: Who knocks at the guarded gate?
Iroh: One who has eaten the fruit and tasted its mysteries.

    • Before this they actually had a Spy Board Game.
  • Parodied in the Ed, Edd 'n' Eddy episode "In Like Ed":

Eddy: The crow caws at midnight.
Rolf: And the cat sours the basil. Rolf would love to talk politics, but I must see your invitation!

  • Also parodied in the Dilbert cartoon, where one of the requirements in the beefed-up corporate security was speaking in codes like this, among other things...
  • The Flintstones "Slalom! Slalom!"
  • Parodied/Subverted with two of Megabyte's cronies in ReBoot, who would confound and annoy their boss by speaking like this:

Binome: The jam is moldy in the kitchen, and the rolling rabbit gathers no moss.
Megabyte: What are you talking about?


Herman: Password?
Grampa: Let me in you idiot!
Herman: Right you are. (opens door)


"Hello, Goldilocks? This is Casper. Little Nemo has fallen out of bed."

  • In an episode of DuckTales (1987), the protagonists visit a restaurant full of spies speaking Spy Speak.
  • Family Guy, when Peter goes to a pet shop being used as a front by the mob, that they know is bugged by the feds.

Mob Customer: I'd like to buy a "bunny". (makes air quotes)
Mob Shopkeeper: What kind of "bunny"? A fully-automatic "bunny", or a hand-held "bunny"?
Mob Customer: The kind of "bunny" that would be best for shooting a guy in the head.


Sam: Clueless-1, this is Goth-1. Over.
Danny: Goth-1, this is Clueless-1. Why am I Clueless-1?
Tucker: Tell him!
Sam: Shut it!


Kurt: (looking at the girls through a pair of binoculars) Blue Boy to Tracker One, do you read me? The pigeons are leaving the roost. (camera pans down to see Scott sitting next to him)
Scott: Kurt, I'm right here. And why are you talking like that?


Lump: The fog was thick and dense.
K.Rool: Like your brain.
Klump: No no, I mean the air is thick with enemies! Code-talk! So no one will understand me.
K.Rool: That's a given on the best of days, Klump.

  • Josie and the Pussy Cats. In the episode ""Never Mind A Master Mind". Melody tries to trade in wooden blocks for purple wooden shoes at a shoe store. The shoe store is actually a front for a spy operation and the phrase Melody uses turns out to be a code phrase identifying the user as a secret agent. Melody is thus given the mission intended for the real agent.
  • This was a major part of The Brak Show episode "Shadows of Heat", where Brak's dad is involved in some conspiracy along with George Martinez, Hector Riviera and Rudolfo the Butcher. It turns out they're planning Hector's bachelor party.

Real Life

  • Famed undercover FBI agent Joseph D. Pistone (better known under his alias "Donnie Brasco") confirms that this is actually how a lot of modern Mafia members talk about "business". Because they can never be sure when law enforcement might be listening in, they tend to use the vaguest language possible, leading to such indecipherable statements as "Did you do the thing, with the two guys, in the place? No, no, the other place." Deciphering recordings of this jargon can be be a nightmare for law enforcement, who often listen for hours and hours without the slightest idea as to what or whom is being discussed.
    • Well law enforcement, if they managed to listen, usually knows well what they are speaking about... they just can't use it in court as evidence.
    • During Henry Hill's (the mobster whose life Goodfellas was based on) trial, the Feds brought in actual jewelers to testify that the conversations Hill was having weren't actually related to jewelry work and were instead code for drug deals.
  • John Barron's non-fiction book KGB: The Hidden Hand tells of a KGB agent explaining to an American he'd recruited about the use of signs and counter-signs, whereupon the man burst out laughing—he'd assumed that such talk had been a ridiculous invention of spy novel writers.
  • Victor Suvorov, a former GRU (Soviet military intelligence, and rival agency to the KGB) says in Inside the Aquarium: Making of a Top Soviet Spy that signs and code phrases used in the field should be as innocuous as possible (and usually accompanied with similarly innocuous behaviour, like holding a newspaper under one arm). He also describes at least two situations when he almost missed the sign himself while meeting with contacts.
  • People in Romania tried to use Spy Speak while talking about taboo subjects during the communist era. "Did the kids like the grapes I sent" was a possible analogy for asking if the family got the illegal books you bought in other countries. Granted, this never worked, as the state police did house wipes at the slightest suspicion. It did mean they have an excuse to beat someone up, empty their refrigerator and get praised for not killing/raping anyone.
  • This was the purpose of Cockney rhyming slang (ex. apples and pears = stairs), which sounds absolutely silly to Americans.
  • General Lloyd Fredendall, a US commander during World War 2, had a tendency to tell his staff to cut orders to subordinate commanders referring to "clouds," "popguns," "walking boys," and grid co-ordinates "starting with C." The unfortunate thing was that he never told anyone what his terms meant.
  • A very common military strategy is for a soldier to challenge an approaching unknown with a number. The newcomer responds with another number, and their numbers should add up to a previously agreed upon number. A variation is to use hand signs to signal the numbers back and forth, while lessening the risk of outsiders overhearing the numbers. The number they are supposed to add up to will usually change from one day to the next as well.
    • This is also particularly handy if you are wearing chem warfare gear that makes it difficult to talk clearly without shouting or to dig an ID card out of a pocket.
  • Many forms of thieves' cant were invented exactly for this purpose. Russian ofenya is one of the modern examples.
  • In cryptography, messages will be padded with nonsense for various reasons, depending on the encryption method used (including concealing the length of the message, or bringing it up to a whole number of blocks when using an encryption method that works on blocks of fixed size). During the Battle of Leyte Gulf, Admiral Nimitz sent a message to Admiral Halsey: "Where is, repeat, where is Task Force Thirty Four?". Routing information and padding was added to the message, and it was then transmitted. Upon receiving it, Halsey's radio officer removed the padding on the front, but overlooked the padding on the back. So the message that got handed to Halsey was "Where is, repeat, where is Task Force Thirty Four? The world wonders." Halsey took this as a sarcastic insult (as well he might) and then deliberately delayed for an hour.
  • In political debates, these are called "dog whistles"—like Spy Speak, seemingly innocent phrases meant to give a cowardly debater plausible deniability if said debater wishes to hide or misrepresent their real opinions. The term, of course, comes from those whistles that dogs can hear and humans (usually) can't because they're outside the upper bounds of human frequency perception.
  • This was fairly common practice in World War II naval codes. The names of locations would be meaningless nouns, so even if the code was cracked the enemy's information is limited. They may know a carrier task force is headed to 'eggplant', but not what or where 'eggplant' is. This confusion played a major part in the Battle of Midway. Adm. Yamamto's task force had to sail for around two weeks to reach Pearl Harbor, during which Japan was still trying to come to a diplomatic solution. Yamamato was to only attack Pearl Harbor if he received a transmission involving the words 'climb Mt. Niitaka.' Sure enough, this message was received.
  • Businesses such as malls, department stores, or movie theaters will often have a set of innocuous-sounding code phrases that can be announced over the PA or radios to alert employees to problems or threats. These are designed to sound like normal messages so as not to panic the customers.
    • The stereotypical one being "Manager Redmond to storage room 5" to dignify that storage room 5 is on fire.
    • Some schools do this as well, where the office will page a former/deceased teacher or administrator as a signal to lock doors and turn off lights (as with a school shooting or similar incident).
  • Passwords in Freemasonry use the sign/countersign technique but usually with gestures, letters, and sounds instead of words.
  1. His task was to have a pair of high-yield nukes fitted to the White Star to be used as a suicide weapon.