What's the password?
November 26, 2012 2:55 PM   Subscribe

What's the password?

I'm interested in secret codes that different groups use to identify each other. The groups might be illicit (14/88 for Nazi sympathizers, representing the 14 words and H H or 8 8 for Heil Hitler) or persecuted (drawing one half of the Jesus fish which the other person would recognize and then draw the second half). I don't think something like using the Navajo language as code during WWII would count.

Beyond that I'm not really sure what I'm asking for, I understand it's pretty wide open and nebulous, and that more modern ones would be harder to come by.
posted by Evilspork to Society & Culture (55 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Shibboleth is what you're looking for.
posted by empath at 2:56 PM on November 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

No, shibboleth is quite different—that was a one-time effort to separate out the bad guys so they could be dealt with, and metaphorically it refers to similar tests. The question is about "secret codes" that groups "use to identify each other," not open tests to weed out baddies.
posted by languagehat at 3:01 PM on November 26, 2012 [4 favorites]

The freemasons (and various other fraternal and secret socieities) use/used secret handshakes for this.
posted by aubilenon at 3:06 PM on November 26, 2012

These days we talk about "dog-whistles" in the political sphere: using phrases that identify the speaker as sympathetic to or a member of a particular political party or position. Consider the famous Lee Atwater quote recently posted in this thread. "States' rights", "personal responsibility", "forced busing" are common and not-all-that-subtle right-wing dog-whistles.
posted by briank at 3:07 PM on November 26, 2012

My college frat had a "secret handshake" and a prompt-response verbal passphrase. They were primarily running jokes amongst us, but I know some houses took them pretty seriously.
posted by mkultra at 3:08 PM on November 26, 2012

Are you a friend of Dorothy?

(Drat, beaten to it by one minute!)
posted by Jehan at 3:09 PM on November 26, 2012

I've only ever heard "friend of Dorothy" for gay men, not lesbians or bi people. Another gay/lesbian thing besides describing someone as "family" was saying someone "goes to the same church" to explain why you know someone.
posted by rmd1023 at 3:14 PM on November 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

posted by zamboni at 3:14 PM on November 26, 2012

Friend of Bill?
posted by bink at 3:15 PM on November 26, 2012

Hanky codes?
posted by elizardbits at 3:16 PM on November 26, 2012

(I know the following is endlessly debatable, but this is a rough summary)

"Do you want to party?" = "Are you a john looking for a prostitute?"

"Do you like to party?" = "Are you an illegal drug user?"
posted by muddgirl at 3:18 PM on November 26, 2012

My friend says "The Program" when he's talking about AA. Not sure if that's widely used or just a thing he says.

2nding 420, although my former pothead boyfriend had never heard of that before I told him what it meant. It might just be Craigslist-using potheads who know 420.
posted by jabes at 3:19 PM on November 26, 2012

posted by afx237vi at 3:23 PM on November 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yeah, if Craigslist stuff counts, add "ski weekend" and "skiing" as a hobby to (the sketchier end of) online dating.

I haven't seen it used on OKCupid -- though my match percentages probably preclude ever seeing the profiles of those sorts of people -- and I'd be shocked to see it on the more conservative sites like Match or eHarmony. But in the Craigslist personals, saying you enjoy skiing or are looking for someone to come along on a ski trip means you are looking for someone to do coke with.
posted by Sara C. at 3:25 PM on November 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Another one, the complete opposite side of the coin from drug code, would be the use of the term "Christian".

There's a certain use of the word "Christian" that doesn't mean, like, Christian as opposed to Jewish or Hindu, but evangelical mega-church Protestant. Things like "Since I became a Christian..." (virtually all of these people were born into Christian families and have been attending church since birth), "I want to find a good Christian to settle down with" (these people are not puzzling out the cultural ambiguities of dating Buddhists or Muslims), things like that.

I can't exactly spell out where the line is drawn between That Sort Of Christian and Christian as used by the general public, but I can always tell when I hear it used in context.
posted by Sara C. at 3:30 PM on November 26, 2012 [4 favorites]

As mentioned: Masonic Secret Handshakes.

But it's an interesting question: "Masonic secret handshakes, whereby secret signs or codes are used to establish mutual identification, are an example of _______________."
posted by MonkeyToes at 3:34 PM on November 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Sara C. - I think it's shorthand for "born again Christian" not in the theological sense that all Christians are born anew, but in the modern evangelical sense of dividing the "church-goers" from those who are devout and have "a personal relationships with Jesus Christ."
posted by muddgirl at 3:37 PM on November 26, 2012

I often identify MeFites by asking if they are friends of Matt Haughey or if they are part of Jessamyn's party.
posted by grouse at 3:55 PM on November 26, 2012 [5 favorites]

My favorite recognition ceremony: The Exchanging of The Archchancellor's Keys (scroll down about halfway).
posted by MonkeyToes at 3:59 PM on November 26, 2012

Handshakes are popular. Scouting has one, as does the Order of the Arrow within it. I've never understood it though. Pull it on the wrong person and they'll ask what was up, and before you know it, everyone knows you're in some secret organization but publicly looking for other members, which sort of betrays the whole point... doesn't it? Symbols are a lot more covert.
posted by jwells at 4:27 PM on November 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Perhaps Hobo Signs is in the ball field? Used intergroup to pass along messages
posted by edgeways at 4:30 PM on November 26, 2012

The phrase "Flick Lives!" or the sign/countersign "Excelsior"/"Seltzer Bottle," or the phrase "Excelsior, you fathead!," were used by fans of Jean Shepherd to identify each other in the '60s. (And still today, to a degree, I suppose.)
posted by Devoidoid at 4:34 PM on November 26, 2012

Along the lines of the Pratchett and Jean Shepherd stuff, the Hitchhiker's Guide fan-verse has a ton of these. There's the number 42, the towel, and of course, DON'T PANIC.
posted by Sara C. at 4:50 PM on November 26, 2012

As mentioned variously above, I was more thinking of signs/symbols of inclusion, rather than those of exclusion, like shibboleth. But shibboleths look interesting too, thank you!
posted by Evilspork at 4:54 PM on November 26, 2012

[No Christian derail here folks. Thanks.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 4:56 PM on November 26, 2012

On reflection -- identifiers? As in "gang identifiers"?
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:01 PM on November 26, 2012

A lot of Chinese stories (and possibly underground communist party, when that was a thing) use pairs of sentences as identifiers. They are vaguely related and poetic. One person says the first half, and the other person is supposed to respond.


In Tian Long Ba Bu, one person tries to identify another by saying, "Oh, what a full moon." And the other person was supposed to say something (but couldn't).

In The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, one of the things the protagonists had to do was to try to get information out of someone by pretending to be that person's ally, and somehow complete the pair of phrases. The first half of the phrase is "Flying Swords of Dragon Gate" (I think). And the second phrase (again, I think) had something to do with riches and gold. (This is NOT a recommendation to actually watch this movie.)
posted by ethidda at 5:01 PM on November 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Wasn't it in the movie The Sting that the group signaled their identity and involvement to each other by a finger alongside the nose? I even (mis?)remember the ringleader going to a photobooth and taking pictures of him making this sign, to be sent out to his confederates as invitations to get in on the scam.

In one of Bruce Sterling's works, either Zeitgeist or a short featuring Leggy Starlitz, a hand sign is made to indicate affiliation with a particular gang. This came across to me not like a 'bloods fingers' kind of sign, which is well-known and pretty public, but more of an insider thing. And in his Maneki Neko short, members of a certain network indicate affiliation to each other with a little cat-paw wave.
posted by attercoppe at 5:35 PM on November 26, 2012

Along the lines of the ski weekend, there is asking if someone wants to come hang out with you and your friend Tina.
posted by Justinian at 5:49 PM on November 26, 2012

Oh, yeah, spies traditionally have secret identifiers, although it's usually to identify a specific person rather than a person of group X. Fictionally, Tim Powers' "Declare" has some impressive instances of the spycraft sort of identifiers/return-identifiers thing.
posted by rmd1023 at 5:49 PM on November 26, 2012

I'm in lefty, activist circles a lot and beside the "brother"/"sister" honorific the use of inclusive language is notable.
posted by saucysault at 6:14 PM on November 26, 2012

Just heard "in the program" in an episode of Breaking Bad, so yeah, it's apparently widely used enough. That said, it was used by someone definitely not in recovery about someone who had already revealed that they were in Narcotics Anonymous. So I don't know if that's a great example of the expression's use as an in-group identifier. It doesn't seem like it's obscure or secretive enough to be used only by group members, a la "family" for being gay.
posted by Sara C. at 6:19 PM on November 26, 2012

The Mormon endowment ceremony bestows one with what is colloquially called a "temple name."

But you're never supposed to disclose it to anyone, ever, with the sole exception being that, in the context of the temple marriage rites, the bride discloses it secretly to the groom a single time, never to discuss it or mention it again. It is never spoken, never disclosed, never used as a password or word of any kind. No one knows the name that was given to me when I received my endowment, and I will never disclose it to anyone. Per the doctrinal underpinning of the rite, the name is supposed to be used a single time in the afterlife for a specific purpose. But I assume that the question here would not be seeking an example of a "password" that is only supposed to be used once in the afterlife.

Although there are various signs and tokens as part of the Mormon temple liturgy, they are not used in Mormon culture as passwords, shibboleths, or in any context outside the temple ceremony itself.

Of the top of my head, I cannot think of anything in Mormonism that would fit what you're looking for here.
posted by The World Famous at 6:39 PM on November 26, 2012

Does cockney rhyming slang fit?
It remains a matter of speculation whether rhyming slang was a linguistic accident, a game, or a cryptolect developed intentionally to confuse non-locals. If deliberate, it may also have been used to maintain a sense of community. It is possible that it was used in the marketplace to allow traders to talk amongst themselves in order to facilitate collusion, without customers knowing what they were saying. Another suggestion is that it may have been used by criminals (see thieves' cant) to confuse the police. - Wikipedia.
posted by urbanwhaleshark at 6:46 PM on November 26, 2012

Although there are various signs and tokens as part of the Mormon temple liturgy, they are not used in Mormon culture as passwords, shibboleths, or in any context outside the temple ceremony itself.

I've known a few people who have used (or encountered others using) tokens in a super-secret-handshake style outside of the temple. It seemed more overenthusiastic than legit, but there ya go. It happens sometimes, it seems, though I always took it as something that was unorthodox. And awkward.

But in the Craigslist personals, saying you enjoy skiing or are looking for someone to come along on a ski trip means you are looking for someone to do coke with.

Is this a regionalism, or somewhat widespread? I would imagine such a reference not being viewed in any way, aside from literally, in places like Utah or Colorado, so I am curious as to where it might be read as a code for something else.
posted by vivid postcard at 7:38 PM on November 26, 2012

In cryptographic terms, this is a challenge-response authentication. In military terms, it's called a countersign.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:40 PM on November 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Vivid - this is from my experience perusing Craigslist Personals (for only hilarity-type reasons!) in New York. While there is some skiing to be done in New York and New England -- and originally I was all, "damn, a lot of people are on here looking for ski buddies?!" -- you could be right.

I eventually figured it out because it would generally not fit in with the rest of the context of the ad. Things like "M4W looking to chill out and go skiing this weekend". A) why does it matter what gender your ski buddy is, B) how are THAT MANY PEOPLE on Craigslist all looking for winter sports activity companions, and C) skiing isn't that "chill" of an activity. Also I think I eventually found an ad that mentioned skiing and 420 and maybe some other unsavory type activities all in the same ad.

You may be right, though, that this could be counterproductive on the Denver and SLC Craigslists.
posted by Sara C. at 7:48 PM on November 26, 2012

I've known a few people who have used (or encountered others using) tokens in a super-secret-handshake style outside of the temple. It seemed more overenthusiastic than legit, but there ya go. It happens sometimes, it seems, though I always took it as something that was unorthodox. And awkward.

Yes, I've had people do that a couple of times, as well. Awkward is exactly the right word, particularly since it's not actually a password or code for anything other than "here's a thing that you won't like that I'm doing if you know what it is." It's roughly the equivalent of giving a stranger an unwelcome hug.
posted by The World Famous at 7:49 PM on November 26, 2012

[Stop with the Mormon derail now please or take it to email.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:59 PM on November 26, 2012

Sara C. - the term for that "code" in craigslist and elsewhere is argot.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:03 PM on November 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

FWIW, A friend of mine once ran into a guy we knew from high school. This guy let my friend know that he was definitely a friend of Dorothy's, although he had been closeted in high school. When my name came up in conversation, this guy asked my friend, 'Oh, Brody's chum is friends with The Scarecrow, right?' and was quite surprised to learn I wasn't. It was clear to my friend that this guy was asking if I was a lesbian. I don't know if this was a regional thing or not, but this isn't the only time I've encountered that reversal as code for lesbian.

Why The Scarecrow (and not The Tinman or The Cowardly Lion) was chosen as a stand-in, I have no clue.
posted by Brody's chum at 8:26 PM on November 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Not sure if this qualifies, but Tumblr users may identify themselves by saying "I like your shoelaces" and if you are a fellow Tumblr user, you would reply, "I stole them from the President."
posted by meggan at 9:51 PM on November 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

"Are you a Turtle?"
posted by SisterHavana at 11:43 PM on November 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Contrary to popular imagination, Freemasons do not use handshakes to identify themselves as Masons to strangers. We have lapel pins, rings, etc for that. To confirm membership there are a host of both formal and informal means of identification.

This is an interesting question and if you find a technical term for the sort of test-question or test-phrase you are describing, I'd love to know.
posted by driley at 12:47 AM on November 27, 2012

Russian prison tattoos are a language unto themselves. [Second link is NSFW]
posted by MuffinMan at 1:01 AM on November 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

In New Zealand, the word "easygoing" in a flatmate wanted ad is generally understood to mean "OK with pot smoking".
posted by Catch at 3:46 AM on November 27, 2012

The hanky code.

Sex bracelets are an urban legend of something like the hanky code. There's no evidence of anyone actually using them for that purpose, so I guess it's a sort of legendary version of what you're talking about.
posted by NoraReed at 4:05 AM on November 27, 2012

You might like challenge coins as well, though I remember being able to buy knockoffs in the 80s. There are controls for that sort of problem that I've seen with other metal objects though, such as composition and weight.
posted by jwells at 6:24 AM on November 27, 2012

"When does the narwhal bacon?"

"At midnight"

As used by our lovely reddit chums.
posted by Decani at 8:42 AM on November 27, 2012

I was stuck in traffic earlier today and had a thought.

A lot of the junk people stick on the back ends of their cars serves this purpose. Not so much the bumper stickers, which are usually openly broadcasting a message of some kind for general consumption, but stuff like:

Magnet in the shape of a charity ribbon, either yellow or slathered with American Flag graphics: proud member of the right wing.

Little chrome fish: Christian, usually of the Evangelical variety.

Little chrome fish with feet: Sciencey humanist type.

Stick figure stickers in the shape of parents, kids, pets: all about family.

Rainbow: probably gay, or a very committed ally.

Blue square with a bold yellow equals sign: supports same sex marriage, gender equality, and LGBTQ rights in general, though less "I am gay" than the rainbow stuff.

I don't really understand what the Calvin (of Calvin and Hobbes fame) pissing on a different car company's logo means, in back-of-the-car argot, but it's clearly a very specific message.
posted by Sara C. at 2:26 PM on November 27, 2012

I'm pretty sure the pissing Calvin identifies the driver as a dude with forearm tattoos and an eyebrow piercing.
posted by stephennelson at 7:11 PM on November 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

I was a pretty avid skateboarder in high school.

Whenever I was out and about (in a civilian, non-skating capacity), I would always take a peek at younger folks' shoes. If they were wearing a skate-brand shoe (Es, Emerica, DC, etc.), and the outward facing upper was scuffed-up and mangled, there was a strong probability that the wearer was a dedicated skater.

I remember the pride I held for my own scuffed-up shoes. If anything, it marked a safe personal affiliation with a niche group -- an important psychological edge to have in the clique-centric High School environment.

I've heard that wrestling-types use a similar form of identification with each other via their "cauliflower" ears, and I'd imagine that other sports and athletic activities each have their own physical markers.
posted by shiggins at 8:50 AM on November 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Other sports also have their own weird sartorial markers not unlike the scuffed skate shoes thing.

For example cyclists who clomp around in cycling shoes with clips. (And among fixie wannabe messenger types, it's the Chrome sneakers with well-hidden clips that you can actually walk in.)

I remember the girls' volleyball team at my high school making a big point of wandering around after practice with their pads still on but scrunched down around their ankles.

Cheerleaders, too, had special shoes that looked mostly like normal sneakers, but to a trained eye signified them as Totally Cheerleaders, Y'all. I'm sure there was also a complicated system of scuffing and color coding and such similar to shiggins' comments about toe wear on skate shoes. Cheerleaders always wore these shoes with their school uniforms (this was Catholic School) on game day, pep rally day, etc.

For a while I had a roommate who was training for a marathon. She always seemed to spend entirely too long in her running clothes, which included one of those free t-shirts from a 10K ("Ninth Annual Turkey Trot", stuff like that), hints of a sports bra, mis-matched running shorts, and hair piled into a messy ponytail. I always thought it was sort of show-offy until I started running, and now I find myself puttering around the house in a similar getup far more often than I'm really comfortable with. That said, I'm not sure how much of this is "signaling membership in a tribe", and how much of it is just wanting to do X Y or Z messy task before I get in the shower.
posted by Sara C. at 10:20 AM on November 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

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