Cryppies, Day Ladies, and Whiffling: The Just-Declassified Lingo of the NSA


A newly public document provides a fascinating peek into the lives and gibes of the National Security Agency's cryptographers.


Every industry has its jargon. I'm sure yours does. In journalism, we call headlines "heds" and the little teaser sentence after that a "dek." No one knows why we misspell these things, and yet we do because this is our house and everyone must know the rules!

However, if you work for the National Security Agency, particularly in the realm of codemaking and codebreaking, your lingo is of more interest to the public than journalism's orthographic idiosyncrasies. And thanks to a recently declassified document that National Journal's Marc Ambinder dug up, we can now peer in at the secretive agency through the jargon used at Sigint City.

Following is a selection of definitions you can find in the full document, which was cheekily compiled by David Hatch, chief of the Operational History Division of the Center for Cryptologic History. Though, to be honest, we already whiffled the list to find you the good stuff.

Burn: to reproduce xerographically; a burn machine was an early office reproduction machine.
Consumer (aka Customer): those who receive NSA reports through regular distribution channels. This is an attempt to introduce terminology from business and commerce into the intelligence community.
Cryppie: shortened form of "cryptanalyst"; used (and taken) by some as affectionate, by others as derogatory -- listen carefully for the tone of voice and check to see if the speaker is smiling or not.
Day Lady: a mildly pejorative term used by workers on evening or overnight shifts to describe a person of either sex who works only "normal business hours"; often characterized by a compulsive concern for wearing a necktie or avoiding jeans.
Desk Rats: that's OK, you know who you are.
Diddy Bopping: copying manual Morse transmissions.
Flag Carriers: Agency senior executives, so named because the backdrop for their badge photographs includes an American flag.
Fort Fumble: a not altogether affectionate designation for Fort Meade and the NSA headquarters by those stationed elsewhere.
Ghost: to float among offices while awaiting a permanent position.
Hammered: describes text with a significant number of garbles, misprints, or omissions that render it unreadable or call into question its validity.
Hours of Boredom/Moments of Terror: an unofficial slogan used to describe duty in NSOC or other watch offices.
Knobbing: the act of searching for target communications by twisting a dial manually on intercent equipment.
Korling: acronym for "Korean lingust," an occupational specialty. It would look less like a Scottish sport or Canadian beer if spelled with a hyphen.
Mom's: a nickname for the cafeteria, possibly derisive.
Sigint City: a term that came into some currency at the end of the 1980s to refer to the complex of NSA buildings on Ft. Meade, a reflection of the number of facilities and the wide area over which they were spread. While catchy in itself, the term inappropriately slights other important aspects of the NSA mission, for example, information security.
Slip and Slide: to idle or waste time.
U Street U: nickname for the Agency training school overflow building located on U Street in the District of Columbia during the 1950s. In itself, this is a diminutive for the slightly disparaging nickname "U Street University."
Whiffle: to read rapidly through a stack of traffic to cull out usable items; this term is becoming obsolete as computerization reduces the amount of printed traffic routinely delivered to analysts.

Via Marc Ambinder

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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