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The WWII spy roots of the phrase ‘secret squirrel’

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The military is a community just like any other. It has its own social norms and stigmas. Its own cultures and subcultures. The intelligence community — and all its disparate and freaky sub-subcultures — is no different: a microcosmic analog of its macrocosmic parent. That microcosm has all the trappings of any community, complete with its own lingo, legends, and lore. What follows is an example of one such nugget of lore.

I say it’s lore since I can’t verify it. Doesn’t mean it’s not the truth, it just means *I* can’t tell you it’s the truth — no matter how many times I’ve heard it. This tale was originally told to me by an old Counter-Intelligence Warrant Officer. This guy had spent the vast majority of his career in Cold War Germany, and of that, a signifcant portion working in Berlin itself.

He was a crusty old CW4 by the time I met him in the ’90s… which meant he went back a few days. Very many ‘few days.’ He was fluent in German, and like any good uniformed linguist on the grid, he’d tell unfunny lang-geek “jokes” that you’d have to half decipher/half just choke down. But, as with all salty, crusty old-schoolers, he’d also, occasionally, spill the beans.

One such bean-spillage had to do with the cloak and dagger games of the European Theater from WWII to the Cold War…

These Luftwaffe personnel are using two Enigma machines, probably to encrypt and decrypt at once. (Photo courtesy of Helge Fykse, Norway)

Ever heard a German try to say the word squirrel? Hell, not just Germans, anyone who’s not a native English speaker. They can’t. The English word ‘squirrel’ has so many sounds crammed together in such an order as to make the phonic structure completely funky for anyone not raised saying it. There are plenty of videos out there on this. Look ’em up.

So, the yarn this Warrant spun — and I have heard it in other places — was specifically about this linguistic fact. He said that during WWII, the OSS and British Intelligence would use this little verbal tidbit as a kind of challenge and password. They’d strike up a convo with their contact — or whoever it was they suspected of being not who they said they were — and angle some kind of Sciuridae-centric element into the mix.

I’ve always imagined that it went something like this…

Ally: “Great weather we’re having lately, right? Autumn’s a great season. My favorite, in fact. I love when the leaves change color and all those… those… fuzzy-tailed tree rat thingies… What’re they called again? I can’t remember…” As the Ally stares expectantly at suspected German.

Gerry: Smiles, “Ah, yeah… those things. Boy, I love ’em too, those pesky tree rats. Haha. Yes, I forget the word too sometimes. Those are called… uh… squi–” Gerry starts to panic, pull on his collar, and side-eye the doors and windows he can use as an exit. “Those are of course… sikiwirreels, yes?” As he makes a break for it.

Now, as interesting as this one fact is, it gets deeper. I’ve also heard from some of the old-timers that this squirrel door swung both ways. The mish-mash clowncar of sounds in the English word squirrel are matched — if not outmatched — by the German word for squirrel:


Uuuhhh… Gezundheit? So that same awkwardly contrived conversation above in English also [theoretically] happened in German, to spot Allies. How’s that for poetic justice?

From the American OSS to the Army’s Counter Intelligence Corps to the Ritchie Boys to the British MI5/6 and SOE… to the Gestapo and Stasi. Post-War/Cold War Europe brought our community this lore, and the tales around the intelligence campfires are that this tiny little detail is what snowballed into intelligence types being called “secret squirrels.”

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Theo Dyssean

Theo Dyssean is a veteran of both the United States Army, and Air Force. He has also worked as a government civilian and contractor. He currently resides in Japan, and enjoys reading, writing, running, meeting new people, and learning new things.

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