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.


  • 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.[1]
  • 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.


  • 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.
  • Truck drivers will use code on the CB radio to warn other drivers of speed traps on the interstate. "I spotted a "bear" down by the river.", or "We've got a "full-grown" hibernating at the 91 yard stick."


  • 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 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 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 Sherlock, vatican cameos is used between John Watson and Sherlock Holmes as a code word, initially meaning simply 'duck', but later it seems an agreed upon meaning was come up with, and when the term is used it means to 'go to your battle stations - someone's going to die.'


  • Many euphemisms for drug use and sexual acts exist, as they may be considered illegal or illicit in many situations.
  • 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."[2]

Informal code words and propaganda

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



  1. Suomalainen, Valtteri. Kuolet vain kahdesti. Recallmed 1994.
  2. Article[dead link]

External links

Usage examples: