I just heard a friend telling me about a concept of gryps. Translating it to English produced very little (let alone anything of relevance).

Originally, a gryps, is a message passed to, from or within a prison. As those messages are likely subjected to discovery and scrutinuous investigation, it's imperative that they can't be broken. Such property can be achieved by pre-deciding a private meaning to a randomly picked and entirely unrelated phrase. For instance: my donkey will eat a banana could be decided among the included parties to mean a shank is under the bed in room 4. It's impossible to trace back the original meaning because there's simply no trace.

Such a concept is also useful for non-prison related communication. What would be a good term for it in English?

I rejected code phrase and pre-assigned sentence as too general. I'd like a more specific and, possibly, less popular term.

  • 1
    "code phrase" is right. Or just "code". I'm not sure what you mean by "too general". Is "gryps" used in English. Wiktionary says it is Polish prison slang, and traces it to German "gripsen - to snatch"
    – James K
    Commented Jul 20, 2023 at 7:53
  • @JamesK I should have elaborated. I rejected code phrase because it's easily interpreted as a code to access some kind of resource. I'd like to have a term that conveys the concept of pre-agreed convention or meaning. Something like an internal joke among a group of friends: someone says donkey and everybody in the initiated circle knows that it's coffee time while nobody outside has a clue how donkey could even remotely relate to coffee, drinking or such. That's what I meant - code phrase is correct but it includes other interpretations which I'd like to eliminate. Commented Jul 20, 2023 at 8:08
  • In the UK media, the term 'code phrase' is often used when discussing 'Inspector Sands'. If it is used in a PA announcement at locations in the UK transport system, it means 'Some kind of fire alert has been triggered, e.g. an alarm, designated staff should investigate'. This is supposed to avoid panicked crowds trampling each other because of what may be a false alarm. I wonder if the the fact that it is widely discussed these days on the web might dilute its effectiveness. Commented Jul 20, 2023 at 8:27
  • The BBC used to send 'coded 'messages' to resistance groups in Nazi-occupied Europe during World War Two, e.g. on the night of 5 June 1944, the eve of D-Day, the French phrase "Berce mon coeur d'une langueur monotone" meant 'The D-Day invasion is tomorrow; commence your assigned operations'. Coded messages to Poland were a pre-agreed piece of music at the end of the Polish news broadcast each day. BBC staff were ordered to used the named record, even if it was damaged, as the wrong tune would lead to 'the wrong bridge in Poland being blown up'. Commented Jul 20, 2023 at 8:34
  • @MichaelHarvey Perhaps my hopes that English had a specific word/expression corresponding to gryps was too optimistic. What you describe as code phrase or, even more, code message is precisely what I refer to. I was assuming that there would be (possibly archaic, uncommon or obscure) something like that. I guess, it wasn't my google skills that failed me this time. Feel free to post your comments as an answer to be accepted. Commented Jul 20, 2023 at 8:39

2 Answers 2



3a: the private language of the underworld

the cant of thieves



the language used by a particular type or group of people; an often more or less secret vocabulary and idiom peculiar to a particular group

Those do not always use "innocent" words or sentences, but it's a good way to obfuscate not just the secret meaning, but the existence of any secret meaning at all, as a form of steganography:

the art or practice of concealing a message, image, or file within another message, image, or file

A thieves' cant (or argot) in particular would be close to Polish grypsera, although in Great Britain it ended up well-known and unfit for purpose by the 17th century.

  • The cant option gives me the vibes of negative connotations (and also has several meanings). However, argot seems to be spot-on. Just a FUQ on how you'd perceive the term in practical usage. Would you say that an argot could be a single message (be that on a piece of paper passed across the prison)? Or is it only to be used as a decryption of the concept in general (i.e. the act of coding messages, passing them around)? Commented Jul 23, 2023 at 15:16

This is a code phrase, or perhaps code message. Commonly associated with spies but found elsewhere too.

The "Inspector Sands" code phrase has been widely publicised (A request that "Inspector Sands" should come to reception means "there is a fire or other emergency situation) At my workplace, we have a code phrase to be used in case of an emergency lockdown to mean "It's all clear, you can come out now."

A code phrase, or coded message is a prearranged sentence that carries some message unrelated to the actual words being said, exactly as you describe a gryps.

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