Covert Ops: 9 Espionage Terms Decoded

The fabulous gadgets of 007 and Ethan Hunt might be out of our price range, but the vocabularies of super spies are well within reach. Join us as we decode 9 terms from the world of espionage.

canary trap

Canary trap

This phrase was used by Tom Clancy in Patriot Games and refers to a method of finding leaks—or determining which songbird sings—in a spy organization or operation in which different versions of sensitive information are given to each suspected leaker. Prior to canary trap, versions of this strategy were referred to as Barium meal tests.

sheep dipping, German Shepard, Sunglasses

Sheep dipping

In the light of day, this phrase refers to the practice of coating sheep with a liquid formula of insecticide and fungicide to protect them from parasites. In the underworld of military intelligence, it means disguising one’s true identity.



From Edgar Allen Poe’s feathered friend to the trickster of North Pacific Coast Native American mythology, ravens have occupied a special place in numerous cultures. The term raven pops up in spy terminology to refer to a male agent who seduces targets to gain intelligence.

mole, John le Carre


In the context of clandestine intelligence operations, a mole is a spy who burrows into the ranks of an enemy governmental staff or intelligence agency. This sense was popularized by celebrated spy novelist John Le Carré, but, according to the OED, the sense of “a person who works in darkness or secrecy” dates back to the 1600s.

winnie the pooh, honeypot, honey trap

Honey trap

A honey trap refers to a strategy whereby an attractive person uses his or her powers of seduction to coerce someone into doing or revealing something. This term, as well as the term honeypot, can also be used to refer to the not-so-sweet person employing this strategy.



The word cobbler has a plethora of meanings: it can refer to someone who mends shoes, a deep-dish fruit pie, an iced drink made of wine, sugar, lemon and ice, or a specific kind of fish. However, in the shadows of undercover ops, a cobbler is a spy who produces fake documents, such as visas and passports.



If the gumshoes are hot on your tail and you need to skip town while on a top-secret mission, ask your “cobbler” for a “shoe.” In spy lingo, this term refers to false documents.

Brush pass

Any spy worth his or her salt has mastered the art of the brush pass. This term refers to momentary in-person contact in which crucial intelligence information is exchanged.



The spy senses of this word, “to install a secret listening device” and “a hidden eavesdropping device,” perhaps evolved out of insects’ aptitude for infiltrating spaces unnoticed.

What are you favorite espionage words?

Sign up for our Newsletter!
Start your day with weird words, fun quizzes, and language stories.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

The Dictionary Is More Than The Word Of The Day

Enter your email for quizzes, quotes, and word facts in your inbox every day.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.