The word “spy” has been in the news a lot this month. A former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter Yulia “remain critically ill in hospital after being poisoned by a military-grade nerve agent”, in the words of this Guardian piece from earlier today. The piece is headlined “Russian spy poisoning: police release picture of Skripal’s BMW”. This story will run for some time yet.
The Oxford Dictionaries website defines spy as “A person employed by a government or other organization to secretly obtain information on an enemy or competitor”. Its derivation is “… from an Indo-European root shared by Latin specere ‘behold, look’.” “Specere” also leads us to words like “spectacle” and “spectator”.
We are nine days away from the Wednesday of Holy Week, also known in the Catholic Church as Spy Wednesday. It takes its name from the actions of Judas Iscariot. The Gospels tell us that he betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver, as you probably know. This page on Wikipedia quotes the OED’s definition of spy as “ambush, ambuscade, snare”.
Betrayal, nerve agents and poisoning are no laughing matter but in recent weeks, as our news stories have been dominated with news of Russian espionage, I have been reminded of a joke that I first heard at a John Cooper Clarke gig nearly 20 years ago. It takes place at the height of the Cold War.
A man parachutes into a remote Welsh village and makes his way to the local pub. He walks up to the bar and says, in a strong Russian accent, “I am looking for Jones”. The barman tells him, “We’re all called Jones here, boyo. That’s Jones the butcher, I’m Jones the barman and that fella there, he’s Jones the baker.” The man with the strong Russian accent says, “The River Volga. Is full of fish. At this time of year.” The barman understands immediately. “Ah, you’ll be wanting Jones the Spy. He lives two doors down, number 22.”