Operation what?: How the police come up with their bizarre codenames

Why is the Met's probe into News International's phone hacking scandal called 'Operation Weeting'? Because the way the police choose operational names is utterly random.

Weeting. It's not a word to strike fear into the heart. Or awe. Or even much interest. It could be a Caribbean term of endearment ("Look at the wee ting, goin' to be a heartbreaker when she grown"). Could be one of those English, noncomittal sorts of weather ("It's been weeting for days now"). It could even be what those thin prim men from local government do ("He was weeting away for hours").

And yet there are those to whom the word is, at least, unwelcome. Andy Coulson, for example. Flame-haired News International suprema, Rebekah Brooks. Maybe even Rupert Murdoch himself. For the massive investigation into phone-tapping, e-mail-intercepting, grand-scale invasion of privacy and breach of confidentiality in News International is called... Operation Weeting.

"Weeting (n). The little excited noise made by a journalist when he thinks he's got someone by the short hairs after earwigging their phone calls. Also the little scared noise made by the same journalist when the police arrive."

Why 'Weeting'? Who chose it? What occult significance does this rather mimsy word have to the cops who chose it? Were they inspired by Douglas Adams' and John Lloyd's The Meaning of Liff, which hijacked fine words that were just place-names on signposts and put them to good use? It would make sense. Weeting is in reality a dull-looking village in East Anglia, notable for the longest row of thatched cottages in England, and what was possibly the longest thatched-roof fire in England, too.

But it's not. It is, alas, random. As random as Operation Century, Operation Pin, Operations Barkertown and Bagle, and Crevice and Ore and Caprock and (in case you were detecting an emerging geological leitmotiv) Operation Zoomania.

All these sprang from the same source as Weeting, which is – Britain being as Britain is – an Official Document. In this case, The Book: a long list of names for operations, made up by a special group of policemen and circulated to the nation's coppers for them to choose from.

It makes sense. You couldn't chat over a pint about Operation Fit Up That Moody Bastard "Chopper" Niblo, in case one of Chopper's henchmen was listening. Call it Operation Snuffbox and all is obscured.

It's a different story in proactive police initiatives. A plan to round up everyone in loud shirts needn't masquerade as Operation Hangdog, or Spud-u-Like. It could simply be called Operation Nick Buggers In Loud Shirts. It's an approach favoured by the Americans, who have fun with operations, like with operations such as Pop Top (underage alcohol sales), Cookie Monster (a drug ring investigation) and What's Up G? (the "date-rape" drug GHB).

But this, as aforesaid, is Britain. We play our cards close to our chest, and The Book it is. Nor is it an easy task. Finding words which can be taken seriously, but which are free of dodgy associations, is harder than it looks. If I gaze around for inspiration, I could come up with Operation Paunch, Operation Penknife, Operation Cheroot, USB Cable and Pen Top. None of them has the mystery of the real list, a masterpiece of dark postmodern poésie trouvée merely disguised as an administrative convenience for cops. They should publish The Book, entire. But, first, they should reveal the codename for the list-compiling enterprise. All we know is that it won't be Operation Operation Names.

Operation What?

Here are some classic op names, together with what you'd think they were if you didn't know, and what they'd be called if we had a Transparency In Operation Names law.

Operation Swamp

What it sounds like: Something involving drag-nets and police divers, cops rubbing their hands as mist rises from the marshes. You get the picture.

What it actually was: The 1981 operation which changed the naming game. Police "swamped" the inner-city streets in a crackdown on robberies among poor black kids. It didn't go down well, and the souring of relations continues to this day.

What it should have been called: Operation Right, You Little Bastard, Up Against The Wall And Assume The Position.

Operation Nigeria

What it sounds like: Finally, the cops are taking these damned Nigerian 419 frauds seriously. CID blokes got up as fundamentalist preachers are suckering the scammers into a web of bogus tithing and charitable donations, leaving them far from home, penniless and stark naked.

What it actually was: The investigation into the 1987 axe-murder of a private eye, Daniel Morgan. Over three-quarters of a million documents were examined, millions were spent, six people were arrested, £30m was spent on three years of legal hearings, and the trial collapsed earlier this month amid accusations by a senior Scotland Yard detective that police corruption had been a "debilitating factor".

What it should have been called: Operation You Scratch My Back (And Leave The Brown Paper Bag Under The Table When You Leave).

Operation Crypton

What it sounds like: Someone who can't spell "Krypton". Investigation into sightings of criminal aliens terrorising borderline-alcoholic wives of senior football executives with ray-guns in their own lovely homes. Dropped when the wives admitted that their disorder in the bedroom was because they'd been sleeping with their personal trainer.

What it actually was: An investigation into suspected all-round dodginess in horse racing which led to the 2007 acquittal of jockey Kieren Fallon and five others on charges of race-fixing.

What it should have been called: Operation Dodgy-Looking Berks In Trilbies.

Operation Ute

What it sounds like: Three officers from Cambridge Constabulary set off on holiday in the Australian Outback, driving an old Ford ute. Things take an unexpected turn when a whiskery swagman tries to nick their billy but they're up to his lurks and see off the drongo.

What it actually was: 2007 Met surveillance of protesters at demonstrations against the Israeli invasion of Gaza, in which a Starbucks window was broken and shoes were thrown.

What it should have been called: Operation All Arabs Are Terrorists As Any Fule Kno.

Operation Arundel

What it sounds like: Two Met boys on secondment to Sussex town uncover web of Liberal sympathisers employed on the Duke of Norfolk's estate. Complications ensue. Starring Judi Dench as the Duke of Norfolk.

What it actually was: Investigation into child sex abuse, leading to the imprisonment of, among others, Jonathan King, for offences committed around 20 years previously.

What it should have been called: Operation The Sun Has Got His Pants Off, Hip Hip Hip He's Nicked.

Operation Magician

What it sounds like: Foiling of a plan by criminal masterminds to pull off the world's most expensive robbery by nicking a 777 carat diamond from under the nose of a huge security operation in a vast public space.

What it actually was: Exactly that. They were planning to pinch the £200 million De Beers Millennium Diamonds from the Millenium Dome, using a JCB and a speedboat. But the Flying Squad were on to them. Wot larks!

What it should have been called: Operation Magician, obviously.

Operation Julie

What it sounds like: Dawn swoop on a lethal band of yodel-singers in Lederhosen and dirndls, carrying deadly Edelweiss and terrorising the elderly and sentimental.

What it actually was: A major drug sting in 1977, putting two huge LSD operations out of service and their operators behind bars.

What it should have been called: Operation Wow Look! Giant Parrots, Man!

Operation Return

What it sounds like: A major inter-force push to reunite harmless Ordinary People with the artificial legs, phones, false teeth, harmonium parts, glass eyes and deerstalkers they've left on public transport over the years.

What it actually was: An operation last year, unveiled by Crimestoppers, to haul back a bunch of half a dozen fugitives, including a bloke from Leeds, on the run in Holland.

What it should have been called: Operation Blue Light Zone.

Operation Perseus

What it sounds like: Trained by the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, the Mounted Police learn to jump over groups of kettled demonstrators, turning pirouettes in mid-air to Johann Strauss waltzes.

What it actually was: Major 1998 British Transport Police operation to reduce crime on the Brighton to Hastings railway. A train was named after it, only increasing the already indescribable glamour of the operation.

What it should have been called: Operation We're Proper Police Too, You Know.

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