Cloak-and-Dagger – Origin and Meaning

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Candace Osmond

Candace Osmond studied Advanced Writing & Editing Essentials at MHC. She’s been an International and USA TODAY Bestselling Author for over a decade. And she’s worked as an Editor for several mid-sized publications. Candace has a keen eye for content editing and a high degree of expertise in Fiction.

No, it’s not just a popular Marvel comic and TV show. The phrase “cloak and dagger” is actually much older and has a deeper meaning behind it. But, like most idioms, understanding their origin and definition is essential if you want to use them correctly. So, buckle up as I explain what you need to know about using the term cloak and dagger.

Cloak and Dagger Meaning Explained

Cloak and Dagger Origin Meaning

We use the phrase “cloak and dagger” when we want to describe situations that involve a level of secrecy, intrigue or espionage. The term is meant to invoke mental images of spies and secret agents, where cunning and deception are the order of the day.

Picture a scene from a thrilling spy movie, like James Bond, where the protagonist dons a dark cloak and brandishes a hidden dagger, ready to embark on a top-secret mission. That, in essence, is the whole idea of “cloak and dagger” and plays into its more literal origin, which I’ll cover in a second.

Or think of any movie or TV show where the characters have a mission, and they’re following it, only to have it revealed that one character had been following a second, more secretive mission all along. That’s also a good example of cloak and dagger.

Origin of Cloak and Dagger

The phrase “cloak and dagger” comes from 18th-century Europe, where it was first used to describe the melodramatic, swashbuckling stories of intrigue and adventure that were popular at the time.

These stories usually had characters wearing cloaks to conceal their identities and carrying daggers as their weapon of choice.

It goes hand-in-hand with the term smoke and mirrors, too. In France and Spain, these terms conjured up the idea of people or organizations operating secretively or working to fool you or hide something while trying to win.

One of the first known instances of it published was back in 1769 with the title, “A Speech of a Nobel Earl to a Great Personage,” which was printed in The Derby Mercury and read, “…and those that endeavor to dissolve it carry a dagger under the cloak of patriotism, to stab their country in the heart.”

Cloak-and-Dagger: Should It Be Hyphenated?

Ah, the age-old question among writers: do you need a hyphen or not?

In the case of “cloak and dagger,” the answer depends on how you use the phrase. When it’s an adjective, it’s generally hyphenated.

  • Cloak-and-dagger operation
  • Cloak-and-dagger novel

But when you use it as a noun, no hyphen is needed.

  • The world of cloak and dagger

So, wield your hyphens with caution, lest you inadvertently create a cloak-and-dagger grammar mystery!

What Are the Synonyms for Cloak and Dagger?

  • Covert
  • Undercover
  • Clandestine
  • Secretive
  • Hush-hush
  • Behind-the-scenes

Cloak and Dagger Examples in a Sentence

Cloak and Dagger Origin Meaning 1
  • The British secret agent lived a cloak-and-dagger life, constantly on the move and trusting no one who stepped into his path.
  • The whole idea of her husband buying a house without telling her was completely cloak and dagger.
  • The series about superhuman Cloak and Dagger is one of my favorite Marvel adaptations.
  • Amanda’s cloak-and-dagger approach to office politics left a lot of colleagues feeling uneasy.
  • We hired him, but he seems to be the cloak and dagger, so keep an eye on him. 
  • That new thriller novel I just finished reading was full of cloak-and-dagger intrigue, with spies and double agents around every corner. You should read it!
  • The council of vampires held a cloak-and-dagger meeting in the dead of night, exchanging information under the cover of darkness.

Bond, James Bond

The next time you watch a 007 movie or read a mystery book, I bet you’ll come across the term “cloak and dagger.” Only this time you’ll have a better understanding of its intent and context. Just remember that it basically means a secretive method, operation or character.