I Spy a little-used word!

Spy novels often use terms like ‘secret service’, under cover, ‘agent’ and so on.

They don’t often use:
‘cabbalistic’, ‘Delphic’ ‘oracular’ or ‘abstruse’.

Nor when reflecting on any failure of cunning by spies do they use ‘maladroit’ or ‘ingenuous’.
In fact to reflect this failure of effective spying we can turn to Lord Chesterfield who said: ‘Cunning is the dark sanctuary of incapacity.’

Spies need to be ‘artful’, ‘astute’, Machiavellian and trained in the art of ‘wiliness’. They need to use ‘narks’ and carefully ‘descry’. In the early days of organised spying, as opposed to being generally nosey, spies were told to ‘behold’.

It is when we consider ‘undercover’ that we run into trouble with English because ‘covert’ can mean ‘clandestine’ but also ‘coppice’ or ‘shrubbery’ – even a ‘thicket’! A ‘cover-up’ can also be expressed as ‘slather’, ‘swathe’ or ‘encrust’!

There are many words and phrases for ‘assassination’. ‘Terminate with extreme prejudice’, ‘strike off the list of the living’, cut the heads off the tall poppies’, ‘delete’, ‘blow away’, ‘hit’ are some of the euphemisms – and as Moliere says: Assassination is the quickest way.’

To keep our secrets secret we will use ‘encryption, ‘cryptography’ or codes and ciphers’. But a ‘cipher’ can also be a ‘nobody’, nonentity’, ‘logo’ or ‘device’ – and a code can be a ‘canon’ or ‘maxim’.

A double agent can also be a ‘binate’, ‘knavish’, vacillating’, or a ‘ringer’.

‘Cryptic’ comes from Late Latin – ‘krupticos’, and ‘agent’ comes from the Late Latin ‘agere’, = to do.
Finally we descry the spy and find out why that word is used: It comes from the Old High German ‘spehon’ or the Middle Dutch – ‘spien’.

And now to leave you with this enigmatic thought:
In Ireland they have a day called ‘Spy Wednesday’, which marks the Wednesday before Easter when Judas agreed to spy on Jesus for the Sanhedrin.

Despite this we need our spies – brave, clever and vital to national security.

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