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A Glossary of le Carré's Espionage Jargon

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Many people reading John le Carré for the first time are sometimes confused by his terminology. I'm not sure if this jargon is his own creation, or if it is in fact the language of espionage. Here is an attempt to define/explain some of the terms used (this is a work in process):


Backbearings - A method of gathering information using indirect evidence or information to determine a fact. By determining what someone doesn't know and is asking questions about, the agent can then determine what that person does know.


Bearleader - The people charged with organizing and running an operation.


Angels - Local, non-allied security services.


Burrower - Researcher


Circus - British Intelligence (MI6)


Competition - British Security Service (MI5)


Cousins - American Intelligence


The Fall - Used regarding the time line of the Circus and refers to the unmasking of the mole 'Gerald' (the fall happens in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy). It is such an important frame of reference that people refer to events as before the fall and after the fall.


Ferrets - The people who check for listening devices.


Handwriting - An agent's habits, technique, modus operandi


Housekeeper/Housekeeping - Human Resources department, responsible for maintaining cover identities and agents (joes)


Janitors - Building security personnel


Joe - The term for an agent out in the field who is being operated by British/American intelligence agencies. The joe is not always a citizen/worker of the opposition.


Lamplighters - The people who carry out surveillance, clear drop boxes, intercept mail, etc. Based in Acton.


Leash-dogs - People who are trained to follow pedestrians.


Make a pass - Make overt contact with an agent (joe).


Moscow Centre - Soviet Intelligence


Mothers - Secretaries


Nursery - A training, and possibly detention, centre. Located in Sarratt.


Pavement artists - People who are trained to secretly follow an individual on the street.


Put out smoke - When an agent makes a showy display of his or her cover identity in order to give their cover legitimacy.


Recycling - Sending defectors back to continue spying before anyone knows they are gone.


Rumpus Room - The meeting room on the fifth floor of the circus.


Scalphunters - The people who handle the dirty work (ie. kidnapping, bringing defectors across the border). Based in Brixton.


Shoemakers - Forgers


Wranglers - Radio/signals operators, code breakers

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  • 1 month later...

As a useful introductory thread to le Carré's writing this seemed the best place to stick a link to this evening's Front Row on Radio 4, which had a special interview with him.


Click on Monday's edition here. Only until the end of this week though!


Edit: It also answers your observation, SlowRain:


I'm not sure if this jargon is his own creation, or if it is in fact the language of espionage.

He made it up himself, although some of those terms have now been adopted by the secret services! He gave the example of pavement artists.

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I finally got around to listening to it.


First off (although it's probably too late), there is a spoiler in the interview for Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.


Secondly, I've never before seen le Carré do so much publicity for one of his novels. Perhaps he did so in the past, but I've never seen so many newspaper articles and interviews as I have for this one. He's either really angry over the current world situation or else his sales are sliding into territory that is starting to make him nervous.


The interview was quite interesting, however I think he was a little too quick to bring up the subject of his father, which always seems to get discussed in his interviews.


I'm not trying to be harsh. I do admire him a great deal as a writer. He's one of a very few who can so effectively blend plot, character, language, and themes when other writers only seem to pick two or, very rarely, three of those.

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  • 12 years later...


this is an old conversation and I wonder if there will be an answer to my post. 
I try anyway. 
I read John Le Carré’s novels in French where the term “traine-patin” is often used. I have not recognised an equivalent of this term in English in the article by “Slowtrain”. 
“Traîne-patin” sounds very strange, even funny, in French. It is obviously an invention : it does not exist in the current French language. 
Any idea of the original term in English ?

thanks and a happy New Year to all.

yvon Sellier

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24 minutes ago, Yvon Sellier said:


this is an old conversation and I wonder if there will be an answer to my post. 
I try anyway. 
I read John Le Carré’s novels in French where the term “traine-patin” is often used. I have not recognised an equivalent of this term in English in the article by “Slowtrain”. 
“Traîne-patin” sounds very strange, even funny, in French. It is obviously an invention : it does not exist in the current French language. 
Any idea of the original term in English ?

thanks and a happy New Year to all.

yvon Sellier

Hello and welcome to the board. We are always happy to revisit old conversations even if we don't have the answer. You are right it's made up, here's what I found 091A5637-E58B-4974-B6B4-567112B5CA8F.thumb.jpeg.8696bf6b3accf774d776677516b8f296.jpeg

Edited by lunababymoonchild
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