Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

"Tradecraft" Infiltrates the Language

Over the course of two months he's called home from six different pay phones, from two different cities, never using the same phone twice. And when his mother asked him where he was, he lied. He said that he was in a place in the country with bad cell reception—implying he was in the Tribals—but he was in Peshawar. I'm sorry, but that's not normal guy behavior. That's tradecraft.
—Agent Maya, Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Tradecraft, which has been spy jargon since at least the 1960s, has been making its way into more mainstream consciousness recently, as we hear about operations like the search for Osama bin Laden, or about Edward Snowden's training as a spy. Maybe you were thinking that it referred to the knowledge and skills for any particular occupation, but tradecraft is a good example of how words, compounds, or phrases with seemingly transparent meanings can settle into semantic idiosyncrasy through historical circumstance.

These days, the most common meaning of tradecraft is indeed the one that Agent Maya had in mind. The Corpus of Contemporary American English, which contains 450 million words of English from 1990 through 2012, has 56 examples of tradecraft or trade craft, and of them only four (about 7%) do not have an espionage-related meaning. One of them refers author Paul Theroux's craft as a writer; one refers to medical skill; one refers to political savvy in dealing with upset constituents; and the last is a proper noun, apparently the name of an online travel advisory service (though I was unable to locate a current website for it). The remaining 93% of the COCA hits are more like these:

"Poor tradecraft, meeting in the open like this, " Jake said.

[I]t sure didn't sound like any CIA tradecraft I'd ever learned—but I wasn't going to argue.

Moreover, looking at the Google Books corpus from 2006 to 2008, I have yet to find any hits in which tradecraft has a more general meaning than "spycraft."

Speaking of which, spycraft goes back at least to 1843, in Lord Henry Brougham's Political Philosophy: European Monarchies, Volume 2. It remains in use today, though it was overtaken in 1970 by tradecraft, which according to the Google Ngram Viewer is now 10 times as frequent.

However, tradecraft didn't start out with this intelligence-related meaning. The Oxford English Dictionary has it from 1812 with the meaning "the craft or art of trading or dealing." This citation from 1899 illustrates it well: "It is a lesson in tradecraft … to see how the girl holds her own with the dealers." And even now you can find examples like those lonely four that I found in COCA, as well as the occasional company name, like this building products outfit, or this provider of carrying cases for remote-control helicopters.

The origin of the modern tradecraft, according to the OED, is the use of the trade to refer to the British Secret Service. Here's their earliest example, from 1966: "'How long,' I asked her, 'have you been in the trade?'.. 'Three years, on active ops.'" But that can't be the full story. Unlike tradecraft, the phrase in the trade does not have strong connotations of spying and intelligence. Looking through the COCA examples, it's easy to find examples of in the trade referring to such diverse occupations as show business, agribusiness, rocketry, and physical anthropology. Why don't we immediately think of memorizing lines, transporting grain, calculating trajectories, or sorting shards of bone when we hear the word tradecraft?

Enter the Cold War, or more specifically, the Cold War as a source of entertainment. Novels with the Cold War as their backdrop provide some of the earliest attestations of tradecraft in its modern sense. More specifically still, novelist and former spy John le Carré is the source of the OED's first citation, from his first novel, 1961's Call for Dead: "He was suddenly alert... Was it the latent skill of his own tradecraft which informed him?" Le Carré, in fact, is the source of several early hits for tradecraft, in novels such as Looking Glass War (1965), Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974), and The Honourable Schoolboy (1977).

Other novelists definitely associate le Carré with tradecraft—or at least fantasy novelist Tim Powers does. His 2000 novel Declare spins a yarn about the British double agent Kim Philby, and occult forces at work from the Third Reich through the Cold War. Giving the cleverest and most concise hook for a book that I've ever come across, he has said, "I've always been a big fan of John le Carré, and this is sort of 'Tradecraft Meets Lovecraft'." (This is a widely quoted line, whose ultimate source I've been unable to find; this source seems as reliable as any.)

In fact, some associate the word tradecraft so strongly with John le Carré as to assume he coined the word, at least in this intel-ops sense. On the website TV Tropes and Idioms, John le Carré  has his own page, and in listing notable points about his novels, one editor has called out tradecraft as an example of life imitating art, or in the words of TVTI, "defictionalization." As the editor puts it, "Some spy-speak that le Carré just made up, such as 'tradecraft', is now actually used by MI-5 and MI-6 agents in Real Life." Le Carré himself, however, strongly disagrees. In a communication sent via his publicist, he writes:

I claim no originality for 'tradecraft' whatsoever.  It is a word that was officially in service in intelligence circles, certainly at the time of my own training in the '50s and '60s, and it has endured ever since.  Whoever it was who derided my use of it was totally misinformed.  

In addition to le Carré's own demurral, there is also the fact that the Call for Dead attestation can be antedated. A search of Google Books turns up an article in the November 1960 issue of The Business Lawyer, published by the American Bar Association, which clearly uses tradecraft to refer to covert intelligence-gathering:

Science and technology … will continue to play a major role in the finding, acquisition and analysis of intelligence.

Nevertheless, current evidence shows a continuing need in many cases for the individual agent, personal access to the information desired and the use of the time-worn tradecrafttechniques. I cannot deny the fascination whichthis hide-and-seekaspect of intelligence collection has for me and, I think, for most. Perhaps movies and books have artfully fostered the trench coat and black fedora conception and hindered the advent of the slide-rule and the well-stocked library.

There may be earlier written examples waiting to be found, and if le Carré's memory serves, the spoken usage goes back possibly a decade earlier. But in any case, this attestation shows that tradecraft was not something that le Carré "just made up."

Although the primary meaning of tradecraft these days seems to be, in the words of the OED, "skill in espionage and intelligence work," there are many speakers for whom this sense is still not known. It sometimes still has to be defined specifically, as in this 2003 interview (found on COCA):

LT. GEN. JOHN VINES, U.S. ARMY: Does he have the capability of encouraging other people to do it? Of course he does. He moves furtively. He has what is known as good tradecraft.

AMANPOUR (on camera): What does that mean?

VINES: It means that he knows how to avoid exposure and being caught. He's very good.

Even now, more than 50 years after its first known use in writing, you can sometimes still find it surrounded by scare quotes in news articles. But more and more, tradecraft is coming out of the shadows.


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Neal Whitman blogs at Literal-Minded, where he writes about linguistics in everyday life from the point of view of a husband and father. He taught English as a second language while earning his degree at Ohio State University; has published articles in Language, Journal of Linguistics, and other publications; and writes occasional scripts for the podcast "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." Click here to read more articles by Neal Whitman.

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Comments from our users:

Sunday June 22nd, 2:12 PM
Comment by: Tom P (Las Vegas, NV)
Within the intelligence services, tradecraft, and its synonym fieldcraft (one word, not two), has been used since prior to the First World War. I remember seeing the term in a very old training manual while preparing a report on the history of human intelligence operations while in training to be a counter intelligence officer for the US Army. Unfortunately both documents remain classified in the Fort Huachuca (Arizona) Intelligence Library.

Specifically, tradecraft refers to those clandestine activities by human intelligence agents to facilitate the gathering of intelligence information by other humans. What it all really comes down to is a term most often associated with magicians – misdirection.

What tradecraft does not refer to is any of the technical means of intelligence gathering including listening devices (“bugs”), satellites, or ground radio monitoring stations. A bug used to listen in on meetings in an embassy, for instance, is not tradecraft. However getting the asset (the person working in the embassy as well as the bug itself) in place is tradecraft.

In a magician’s terms those satellites, cameras, and radios would be referred to as props.

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