English Usage

"A great deal of cloak and dagger stuff goes on in politics."

"A lot of cloak and dagger activity was involved in the appointment of the CEO."

"What is up with all this cloak and dagger talk? Is there something going on I don't know about?"



Involving secrecy and plotting.

When people behave in a very secretive way, often when it is not really necessary. 

Concerned with, or characteristic of espionage or intrigue, especially in the context of drama.


So literally, a cloak is a type of long, loose coat and a dagger is a small sharp knife used as a weapon. But figuratively, 'cloak and dagger' has the same feel as the expression 'smoke and mirrors' in that they both conjure up images of espionage, secrecy, and deceit. There are a couple different theories as to how this expression came to be. 

Part of the phrase's origin comes from cloak-and-dagger theatre which was popular in France and Spain in the 18th century. It included main characters who typically wore cloaks and carried daggers called 'de cape et d'épée' (French), and 'de capa y espada' (Spanish). Both translated literally means 'of cloak and sword'. The cloak was wrapped around one arm as a form of shield or worn to hide one's identity.  The dagger, or sword, was a concealable and silent weapon used for fighting. The imagery of these two items became associated with the typical spy or assassin.

Historically, in European martial arts, the purpose of the cloak was:  to hide the presence or movement of the dagger, to provide minor protection from slashes, to restrict the movement of the opponent's weapon, and to provide a distraction. Use of the cloak and dagger was considered a "dishonest" method of combat because of its deceptive tactics. Giacomo di Grassi, in "His True Arte of Defence" (1570, English 1594), included a section called "The Rapier and Cloake" that demonstrates how the cloak is used in combat.

But if anyone can claim to have brought the expression 'cloak and dagger' to the English language, it was Charles Dickens. In Barnaby Rudge, 1841, he made a sarcastic reference to the type of melodramas that employed the cloak and dagger as stage props:

"...his servant brought in a very small scrap of dirty paper, tightly sealed in two places, on the inside whereof was inscribed in pretty large text these words: 'A friend. Desiring of a conference. Immediate. Private. Burn it when you've read it.'
'Where in the name of the Gunpowder Plot did you pick up this?' said his master.
It was given him by a person then waiting at the door, the man replied.
'With a cloak and dagger?' said Mr Chester."

Has anyone heard of any other origins of this phrase?  Tell me some other ways you like to use this phrase in the comments below.