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Two people have a conversation in a public area. People overhearing the conversation find nothing of interest in it; it seems to just be idle conversation. Even the reader notices nothing unusual about it. For the two talking, however, it has a more sinister meaning. Frequently, one is blackmailing or otherwise threatening the other in a sort of "code" they both understand.
Anime and Manga
- Played straight in Baccano, when the head of a prominent crime family tells his notoriously Ax Crazy nephew to go "have a word with" some business associates. The nephew makes absolutely sure that his uncle means what he thinks he means.
Mr. Russo: "Go to the Van Dyke auto plant, Ladd. But just...have a word or two with 'em, okay?"
- In the Fullmetal Alchemist manga, Hawkeye, who is being watched by Pride, manages to reveal his secret identity in a conversation with Mustang. She uses the first letters of every name she says.
- Another time Mustang exasperates his whole office tying up military lines chatting with a lady friend the one day Hawkeye is off duty. His phone friend is ultimately revealed to be Hawkeye, the "flower shop" she refers to her stakeout, the "girls" working with her other members of Mustang's group (they all get girl names as cover, save Breda, who the omakes reveal would have been "Bredette"), and the "customers" she deals with her targets.
Hawkeye: "Oh no. I'll have to get back to you later. . .. A guest of honor is here.
- Hilariously parodied in Dragonball Z. When the Ginyu Force decide who's going to fight the heroes, Captain Ginyu tells his underlings to treat them with "tender loving care." Cue Jeice saying, "Yeah, and when he says 'treat them with tender loving care,' he don't mean patting you on the head and givin' you flowers; he means we're gonna kill you!", triggering a scolding from Captain Ginyu.
- The movie Michael Clayton has Tilda Swinton character contract "Professional Cleaners". When she asks them to kill Michael, the dialog is so vague (and the implication of murder so serious) the assassin actually breaks down and flat out asks her to be clear on whether she's asking him to kill Michael or not.
- Subverted in the movie The 51st State where a villain tells his henchman to "take care" of someone and the henchman kills them. It seems the villain just wanted them to be treated well.
"I meant to take care of him, not to fucking take care of him."
- In Pulp Fiction, Vince tells Jules that Marcellus wants Vince to take care of Mrs. Wallace over the weekend. Jules pauses a moment before making a gun with his fingers and asking, "Take care of her?"
- The Gene Hackman movie The Conversation is based around this.
- Wrong is Right (1982). The President orders the CIA chief to "take care of" the Ghadaffi-like figure who's causing trouble. He pretends not to know what the President is talking about, then reels off a whole bunch of euphemisms ("I've heard 'grease him', 'whack him', 'waste him', 'terminate him'..." etc"). Finally the President spells it out.
President: "K.I.L.L him, by God."
- Oskar Schindler is trying to console Itzhak, the brains behind his successful business and also the man who initially protected the Jewish employees from the Nazis, when he learns that Itzhak is going to be sent away to one of the camps. Oskar explains that he has arranged with the SS commandant for "special treatment," and Itzhak explains that he has heard the term "special treatment" many times and he hopes they are not talking about the same thing. Oskar amends it to preferential treatment.
- Though technically, they're talking about someone else, The Break Up has the lead male and his local bartender engaged in one of these conversations; unfortunately, they have exactly the opposite ideas as to where they want it to lead.
- Apocalypse Now:
Lucas: "When you find the Colonel, infiltrate his team by whatever means available and terminate the Colonel's command."
- Horrible Bosses has the trio of protagonists attempting to hire a hitman. Dale says that assassins can't advertise what they do so they communicate their services in code phrases. Leads to a hilarious misunderstanding with the 'Wetwork Man' who thinks they want to hire him to urinate on them.
- In the film version of Wild Wild West, West and Loveless exchange barbs disguised as pleasantries (about West's ethnicity and Loveless' handicap).
Loveless: Mr. West, how kind of you to show up and add color to this otherwise monochromatic affair.
- "End Play" and "The Man on the Ladder" by Harry Kemelman both feature this, although it later comes out in "End Play" that the man who claims he did this lied.
- Subverted in The White Pillars Murder by G. K. Chesterton.
- The Three Coffins aka The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr.
- Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. Mr Croup is rather fond of these.
"Some of us are so sharp, we could just cut ourselves."
Mr. Croup scratched his head of orange hair, theatrically. "Talking of the marquis, I wonder where he is. He's a bit late, isn't he, Mister Vandemar?"
- The Matt Helm novel The Terminators. Matt's boss asks Matt to take care of an old friend of said boss (who helped our heroes out in a previous novel). Eventually, Matt realizes that the boss really meant a different kind of 'take care of him'.
- Elinor Dashwood and Lucy Steele have too many of these for Elinor's comfort in Sense and Sensibility.
- Fanny Price overhears too many of these for her comfort between Henry Crawford and her engaged cousin Maria in Mansfield Park.
- Inverted in Isaac Asimov's story "Nothing Like Murder", in which a Russian visitor believes that he overheard talk of a conspiracy to tie someone up in the dark and murder him, using the ringing of bells as a signal to action. What he actually heard was a recitation of the verse from The Lord of the Rings describing the Rings of Power.
Live Action TV
- Parodied on a That Mitchell and Webb Look sketch, in which a Dragon expresses irritation with this Diabolical Mastermind boss's habit of doing this, since it leads to unnecessarily ambiguity when the henchmen take him too literally; his statement 'let's hope Dr. Miller meets with an unfortunate accident' leads the henchmen to wait around to see if he meets with an accident until they realize that it's an accident they were supposed to make happen.
- Used quite often on The Sopranos where they use a lot of euphemisms and code that seems made up on the spot to dance around distasteful topics--not because they find them distasteful, but because they never know when there might be a bug. An example from the first season: after they've killed a Hispanic drug dealer and stolen his money stash and found a lot more cash than they expected, Paulie calls Tony:
- In Callan, the titular assassin definitely did not appreciate this kind of talk:
You want a killing? You give an order. Straight. Direct. In front of witnesses.
- In an episode of Not Going Out, a Fawlty Towers Plot rendered the main characters unable to say their true meanings in order not to reveal the fact that they weren't disabled, leading to this sort of talk, which everyone else remains clueless too, even when one of them explicitly says "blackmail".
- Wiseguy. Undercover cop Vinnie Terranova is told to "get rid of" someone who'd just tried to shoot town kingpin Mark Volchek. After putting him into protective custody Vinnie returns with a jar full of ashes (ostensibly the dead victim), only to be told by a shocked Volchek that it wasn't what he meant. Volchek congratulates Vinnie on his "inititative", but to prevent future "misunderstandings" decides to use a codeword for such occasions.
- Vinnie's stepfather, Don Rudy Aiuppo, asks Vinnie to follow another mob boss who plans to murder Aiuppo, so as to see who he's got to do the job. Vinnie reports this to Frank McPike.
Vinnie: Aiuppo wants me to follow him [the mob boss].
- Played with for laughs in the first episode of Sherlock. John Watson is driven to a secret location to meet a sinister gentleman who inquires about John's friendship with Sherlock, with whom he has a "childish feud" and whom he worries about "constantly". John becomes convinced by the man's manner that he's some kind of master criminal speaking in TroubleEntendres, only to discover later that the gentleman is Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock's brother, who was being entirely sincere and (for him) straightforward the whole time.
John: So, when you say you're concerned about him, you actually are concerned about him?
- In an episode of I'm Sorry, I'll Read That Again, they perform a comedic version of Macbeth. The murderers and Macbeth discuss the situation in very vague terms, with the murderers often answering incomplete sentences: "So you're the..." "Precisely." "And he'll..." "Quite." At the end of the scene, Macbeth leaves; One murderer then says to another, "So what are we supposed to do?" To which the other replies "I have absolutely no idea."
- In Bells Are Ringing, the management of Titanic Records is shocked to find that its orders for Beethoven's Tenth Symphony have been switched. They don't care that Beethoven only wrote nine symphonies, as the coded "orders" placed with Titanic Records have less to do with classical music than with horse-racing. So the Corvello gang sends a pair of goons to approach Sandor, president of the operation, in a café. He explains them to Sue as "musicians from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra," but is horrified to learn that Titanic Records might want him to attend a "recording session" over the East River of "Siegfried's Rhine Journey and Funeral March."
- Inverted for comedic value in a series of Sluggy Freelance strips, in which Mr. Middleman hires Riff and Torg to help someone take a dirt nap ( a vampire who needs to regenerate in his native soil) or fit someone else for concrete shoes ( the exercise of walking in them should slim her legs).
- Subverted in Order of the Stick 597 when Vaarsuvius tries to threaten Elan this way, but fails due to both Elan's low intelligence and V's Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness.
Vaarsuvius: Do as you wish, though I find it odd that one who just witnessed the haste with which I will remove that which distracts me from my crucial research would risk becoming just such a distraction one's self.
- Parodied in Futurama:
Donbot: That scab's gonna have a little on-the-job accident.
- Parodied in an episode of The Simpsons.
Legs: "We're Italian. Everything means shooting something."