Code word (figure of speech)

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A code word is a word or a phrase designed to convey a predetermined meaning to a receptive audience, while remaining inconspicuous to the uninitiated. For example, a public address system may be used to make an announcement asking for "Inspector Sands" to attend a particular area, which staff will recognise as a code word for an fire or bomb threat, and the general public will ignore.[1][2]


  • A doctor may refer to a suspected case of tuberculosis as "Koch's Disease" in order to avoid alarming patients.
  • Some medical nicknames are derogatory, such as GOMER for "Get Out of My Emergency Room".
  • Emergency rescue workers or police officers may say, "There is a 'K'," to mean a dead body.[citation needed] Valtteri Suomalainen reported eksi (from exitus lethalis), in use in hospitals in Finland.[3]
  • Code Pink in some hospitals can mean a missing baby, and the initiation of an all staff response.
  • The euphemisms "Rose Cottage" and "Rainbow's End" are sometimes used in British hospitals to enable discussion of death in front of patients, the latter mainly for children. A similar phrase used is: "transferred to ward 13", as hospitals in the UK routinely do not have a ward 13.
  • American hospitals may make an announcement regarding a "Mr. Strong", as code to alert orderlies that a patient or visitor at a stated location is in need of physical restraint.


  • Some stores have special codes that allow one employee to inform another that a certain customer in the store needs to be watched because they are acting in a suspicious manner similar to the typical behavior of a shoplifter.
  • Movie theater employees may say, "Mr. Johnson is in theater number three" to indicate that there is a fire or smoke in that theater. Nightclubs and bars often use the name "Mr. Sands".
  • Many taxi drivers use radio codes like, "There's an oil spill at ...", or "Cardboard boxes lying on the road ...", to warn other drivers of a police speed detection unit. There are other codes to tell other drivers that a popular taxi rank is empty (or full), or warn of drunk or obnoxious customers trying to hail a taxi. "There's a number eight at the railway station," might mean beware of a fare who looks likely to throw up in your taxi.
  • Schools will sometimes use codes during intercom announcements for situations that might distract students (such as an early dismissal due to weather).


  • In Star Trek, Captain Kirk's code word "condition green" meant, "I am being detained by force and watched, but do not intervene."
  • In the film The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear Lt. Frank Drebin uses the code word "I love it" several times to inform police back up to assist him.
  • In the book and film Airport, the name Lester Mainwaring is used to indicate a police officer is needed at a certain place. If an announcement over the public address system indicated that Lester Mainwaring was wanted at a particular ticket counter, the nearest police officer would respond. If an announcement was made that "Lester Mainwaring and all members of his travel party" were to go to a specific location, it would mean to summon every police officer in the terminal to that location.
  • In Fox's TV series 24 Jack Bauer uses the code "Flank Two" to mean that he is currently in custody and is being forced to relay false information back to the Counter Terrorist Unit.
  • In BBC's TV series Sherlock, Vatican cameos is used between John Watson and Sherlock Holmes as a code word, initially meaning simply 'duck' or 'get ready.' Various internet sources offer an erroneous etymology for the phrase, suggesting it dates to World War II. It is, in fact, an allusion to a case investigated by Holmes in the short story "The Hound of the Baskervilles".[4]


  • The term "code word" was used prominently in 1998 by Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz when he testified before the House Judiciary Committee, opposing the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. Rep. Bob Barr said, "Real America understands that the Constitution is there for a reason," to which Dershowitz responded, "Whenever I hear the words 'real Americans', that sounds to me like a code word for racism, a code word for bigotry, a code word for anti-Semitism."[5]

Informal code words and propaganda[edit]

An informal code word is a term used without formal or prior agreement to communicate to a subset of listeners or readers predisposed to see its double meaning.

Informal code words can find use in propaganda, distinct from use of euphemistic code words to delay or avoid emotional responses in the audience. They may be intended to be construed as generalized platitudes by the majority of listeners, but as quite specific promises by those for whom the specific wording was crafted.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Thompson, Rachel. "The secret code phrase you don't want to hear when you're on the Tube". Mashable. Retrieved 2017-08-15. 
  2. ^, Phil Haigh for (2017-08-11). "Who is Inspector Sands? Why you don't want to hear this name on the Tube". Metro. Retrieved 2017-08-15. 
  3. ^ Suomalainen, Valtteri. Kuolet vain kahdesti. Recallmed 1994.
  4. ^
  5. ^ Article

External links[edit]

Usage examples: