John le Carré: The author's official website

Oxford English Dictionary searches for origin of 'to come in from the cold'

The Oxford English Dictionary has provided a timely reminder of the influence that le Carré’s work has on the English language.

Last month the editors of the dictionary issued a public video appeal to pin down the first use of the phrase, ‘to come in from the cold’, for which the meaning is given as ‘(esp. of a spy) to return from isolation, concealment, or exile’. The phrase seems to have entered the language from its use in the title of the le Carré novel, The Spy who Came in from the Cold.

In the appeal, the editors call for all those who have done research in the area, or have experience in it, to come forward with examples of any earlier uses of the phrase than 1963, the year of the novel’s publication. So far, no-one has come forward, and the phrase will be added to the dictionary, attributed to le Carré, on December 13th.

In correspondence with the OED, le Carré said that as far as he knows, he was the first to use the phrase in the connotation described, though he is ‘happy to be corrected’. Perhaps that should be taken as a challenge to readers of this article!

Of course, this is not the first ‘le Carré-ism’ to be recognised officially as part of the English language. Two other le Carré phrases have already been included in the OED. Perhaps the most colourful is ‘honey trap’, with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy cited as its first use. Setting a honey trap, of course, involves using a beautiful woman (or perhaps a handsome young man) to entrap someone into a sexual liaison, which is then filmed for the purposes of blackmail. No doubt a time-honoured technique, it took le Carré’s colourful imagery to give it a name. The dictionary also recognises that watchers in the street, following or observing a target, are known as ‘pavement artists’. The first use there is cited as The Honourable Schoolboy. And while ‘sweating’ a suspect for information turns out to have been used for the first time in the 1750s, the dictionary acknowledges that it is le Carré who has brought it back into modern usage. As a final flourish, le Carré’s term ‘babysitter’, meaning someone who both looks after but also watches an intelligence asset, has been added to the list of words whose etymology is to be investigated for potential future inclusion.

Are there any other le Carré phrases that should be added to the dictionary? Let us know your thoughts below!