QUIZ: Do You Know What These Secret Codes Mean?

Morse Code

From airports to retail stores to hospitals, code words are used in almost every industry. Codes can simplify communication, disguise secret information, or pass messages to employees without alarming the general public. 

While codes are meant to be covert, we’ve taken the time to reveal the hidden meanings behind some ubiquitous secret terms.

Maybe you’re already familiar with a few of these clandestine phrases, but in case you’re not, here’s a quiz to test your Code Word knowledge. 


A. Code for a military hostage situation

B. The Secret Service code name of President Obama

C. A popular Styx anthem from the 1970s

Answer: B

'Renegade' is the code name used by Secret Service members to refer to President Obama when speaking through their microphones.

First Lady Michelle Obama is known as 'Renaissance' and daughters Sasha and Malia are known as 'Rosebud' and 'Radiance.'

The use of Secret Service code names for U.S. presidents, family members, and other high-ranking officials dates back to the early 20th century, before electronic communications were encrypted.

Today, there isn't much that's 'Top Secret' about presidential code names, which have more to do with tradition and brevity than security.

Code Oscar

A. A drunk disturbance

B. The term for a security breach at the Academy Awards

C. Man overboard

Answer: C

Code Oscar means 'man overboard' on a ship. It is signaled with three prolonged blasts on the ship's whistle and General Alarm bell, according to NOAA Marine Operations.

The international maritime signal flag for 'O' or 'Oscar,' warning other ships that someone has fallen or jumped off a vessel, is bright red and yellow.


A. Prisoner escape

B. Police emergency

C. Petty larceny

Answer: B

In most law enforcement units, 10-33 means 'Help me quick' or emergency. 10-33 is one of the 10-Codes, a list of signals historically used by police officers to represent common phrases, particularly in radio transmissions.

The 10-Codes were developed in 1937 by the Association of Public Communication Officers (APCO) and expanded in 1974.

The official APCO '10 Codes' List shows 39 codes (10-1 through 10-39), but notes that actual usage of the 10 signals varies significantly among different agencies.

Doctor Firestone

A. A violent patient is on the premises

B. The code name for an assassin

C. A hospital fire

Answer: C

Dr. Firestone is often used in hospitals as a code word for fire (some alternatives may include Dr. Red or Dr. Pyro, where 'Doctor' is code for an emergency situation).

A message announced over a hospital's public loudspeaker may sound something like 'Paging Dr. Firestone to third floor,' which alerts medical staff that there is a possible fire in the specified location.

Code Adam

A. A missing child

B. A bomb threat in a movie theatre

C. The code name of the Secret Service motorcade unit

Answer: A

Code Adam is the universal alert for 'missing child,' used widely in department stores, hospitals, amusement parks, hospitals, museums, supermarkets, and other public spaces.

The term, which was coined by Walmart in 1994, was named after Adam Walsh, the 6-year-old-son of America's Most Wanted TV host John Walsh. Adam was abducted from a Sears department store in 1991 and later found murdered.

In 2003, Congress mandated that all federal building institute the Code Adam program.

Code 10

A. A dry spill in Walmart

B. A mass casualty or serious threat in a hospital

C. A merchant is suspicious of a credit card holder

Answer: A, B, and C

'Code 10' has a number of meanings, depending on the industry.

In hospitals, a Code 10 may refer to a mass casualty incident or serious threat (such as a bomb alert).

In Walmart stores, Code 10 means there has been a dry spill.

Merchants may issue a Code 10 authorization request if they are suspicious of a card or cardholder during the transaction process. During a Code 10 call, the card issuer's special operator will ask the merchant a series of yes or no questions to obtain more details about the situation without alerting the customer.

• • • — — — • • •

A. Morse code for 'SOS'

B. Morse code for 'Good morning'

C. This doesn't mean anything -- it's just a bunch of dots and dashes

Answer: A

• • • -- -- -- • • • is the distress signal for SOS in one of the most well-known uses of Morse Code, where three dots is the code letter for 'S' and three dashes is the code letter for 'O.'

Morse code is essentially a way of transmitting telegraphic information through a series of short signals known as dits (represented as dots) and long signals known as dahs (represented as dashes). Each character (letter or numeral) is represented by a unique sequence of dots and dashes that when translated, relies on intervals of time between dits and dahs, between letters, and between words.

The electrical coding system has been in use for more than 160 years, although the International Morse Code that is used today, which encodes the Roman alphabet, the Arabic numerals and some punctuation and procedural signals, is slightly different from what was originally created by Samuel F. B. Morse's and Alfred Vail in the early 1840s.


A. Food contamination in a restaurant

B. A slang term for 'user error'

C. What retail employees say when they're ready for their lunch break

Answer: B

PICNIC is computer support slang for 'Problem In Chair Not In Computer.' It's really just another way of saying the user is the source of the problem, not the computer.

Code Blue

A. Cardiac arrest

B. Missing person

C. Biohazard

Answer: A

Code blue is a term commonly used in hospitals to alert doctors that a patient is in cardiac arrest.

According to the book Unplugged: Reclaiming Our Right to Die in America by William H. Colby, the phrase was first used in the Critical Care Unit at Bethany Medical centre in Kansas, chosen for the bluish colour patients turned when in cardiac arrest.


A. A wet spill in a supermarket

B. An acronym meaning 'will comply.'

C. What is your position in latitude and longitude?

Answer: B

WILCO is an acronym for 'will comply,' typically used by the military as a response after receiving new directions.

The phrase is part of a long of military voice procedures designed to simplify communications and reduce misunderstandings during radio transmissions.


A. Idiot

B. An ID code used by FBI agents

C. The name of a clandestine military operation in Afghanistan

Answer: A

In the ITC world, ID-10-T or 'idiot' is a cryptic way of saying, well, the customer is an idiot.

Like PICNIC, it's a derogatory term used by tech support to call out inferior computer users.

Code Bravo

A. A term used by the National Hurricane centre to indicate a storm threat

B. A highway accident

C. A term used in airports to indicate a major security breach

Answer: C

Code Bravo is a term generally used by airport employees to indicate some type of emergency, such as a bomb threat or security breach. It's not a phrase you want to hear in the terminal.


A. What are you bound for?

B. Are you busy?

C. What is your wavelength in meters?

Answer: C

QRH means 'what is your wavelength in meters?' in Q code.

Q code consists of three-letter groups, where each group begins with the letter 'Q.'

The messaging sequence was originally developed by the British in the early 20th century as a shorthand for Morse Code in commercial maritime radicommunication. It was later adopted by amateur or ham radio services.


A. A term used by chefs when they need a dish immediately

B. A call of urgency by a ship or aircraft

C. The code name for The First Dog, Bo

Answer: B

Pan-Pan is the international radio signal used to indicate a state of urgency on a ship, aircraft, or other vehicle.

The call is typically spoken three times ('Pan-Pan, Pan-Pan, Pan-Pan'), followed by the location of the craft, the nature of the problem, and the type of assistance needed.

A Pan-Pan signal is not the same as Mayday distress signal, which means a mobile unit or person is threatened by grave and imminent danger and needs immediate assistance.

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