“Le Carré’s Fiction Burrows Its Way Into Real Life”

From a Ben Zimmer column in the Wall Street Journal headlined “Le Carre’s Fiction Burrows Its Way Into Real Life”:

When the British spy novelist John le Carré died last Saturday, many obituaries noted how his gripping tales of Cold War espionage were informed by his own experiences in the U.K. intelligence agency MI5. His firsthand knowledge of spycraft provided verisimilitude for those bestselling works, beginning with “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” in 1963.

That verisimilitude extended to the jargon of spying in his novels, which had the ring of truth. But in fact, le Carré would often make up his own terms. As he revealed to a BBC interviewer in 1976, “I’ve used some authentic words, but I prefer my own really.” Those le Carré-isms include “scalphunter,” “honey-trap,” “lamplighter” and “pavement artist.”

In that same interview, le Carré was asked about one term that became particularly prominent after he used it in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” in 1974: “mole,” for a double agent who penetrates an organization and spies on it from the inside. . . .

Going back to Middle English, “mole” has referred to a small burrowing animal. . . .By the early 17th century, “mole” could be applied metaphorically to people who were seen as sharing qualities with the animal, particularly relating to how they dig holes underground. In “Hamlet,” Shakespeare has the title character address the ghost of his father, who speaks to him from under the ground (or under the stage): “Well said, old mole! Canst work i’ the earth so fast?”

In 1622, Francis Bacon made use of the term in a history of King Henry VII: “He had such moles perpetually working and casting to undermine him.” Though Bacon extended the metaphor to the palace intrigues of those working secretly against the king, “mole” had not yet developed its modern meaning of a spy recruited to work within a target organization.

Le Carré may have been mistaken in thinking of “mole” as a standard KGB term, but it did appear sporadically in the context of Soviet-era spying. A 1922 article in the London Morning Post on communist activities in Great Britain referred to “the underground burrowings of our Bolshevist moles.” And in 1932, the Soviets recruited a double agent named Fedossenko and gave him the alias “The Mole,” according to Geoffrey Bailey’s 1960 book “The Conspirators.”

Despite these occasional appearances, evidence for “mole” in spy circles is skimpy before le Carré made it famous. . . .

“As I observed in a 2017 column, law enforcement officials didn’t start referring to “sting” operations until the 1973 movie “The Sting” had made the term for a kind of con job popular. In the case of “mole,” it took a writer as gifted as le Carré to make it seem as if the expression had always been with us, quietly scheming under the surface.

Linguist and lexicographer Ben Zimmer analyzes the origins of words in the news. Read previous columns here.

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