'The Man From U.N.C.L.E.' Heralds Return of Spy Acronyms

Don't call it a C.O.M.E.B.A.C.K.
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

As this week's forthcoming The Man From U.N.C.L.E. confirms, something is definitely H.A.P.P.E.N.I.N.G. in pop culture right now. Between Guy Ritchie's revival of the 1960s spy TV series, the next James Bond movie, Spectre — which revives the classic evil spy organization S.P.E.C.T.R.E. — and Marvel Studios' continued use of S.H.I.E.L.D., we're might be preparing for the second golden age of spy agency acronyms.

The acronymized spy agency was all the rage in the 1960s, the era in which U.N.C.L.E., S.H.I.E.L.D. and S.P.E.C.T.R.E. all originally appeared. (Those acronyms, by the way, stand for United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, Supreme Headquarters International Espionage Law Enforcement Division — well, originally; S.H.I.E.L.D. has had many meanings through the years; the movie version's meaning is Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division — and SPecial Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extrortion, respectively; yes, S.P.E.C.T.R.E.'s name literally called for revenge as a mission statement. Presumably, you couldn't join if you didn't have a grudge.)

The origin for the fad is presumed to be another organization from the Bond mythos: SMERSH, which was actually based on a real life organization of the same name. Before too long, however, it had snowballed into a fad that included U.N.I.T. (United Nations Intelligence Taskforce, from Doctor Who), W.A.S.P. (World Aquanaut Security Patrol, from Stingray), Z.O.W.I.E. (Zonal Organization for World Intelligence and Espionage, from Our Man Flint) and Get Smart's C.O.N.T.R.O.L. and K.A.O.S., neither of which had any acronymic meaning but were written as if they did.

Although the trend for a good acronym faded after the late '60s — personally, I think it peaked with U.N.C.L.E.'s opposing number, T.H.R.U.S.H., which stood for Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and Subjugation of Humanity — there was a minor resurgence in kid-friendly media of the 1980s: G.I. Joe featured Cobra, which secretly was an acronym standing for Criminal Organization of Bloodiness, Revenge and Assassination, while fellow toyline M.A.S.K. gave the world both Mobile Armored Strike Kommand and villains V.E.N.O.M. (Vicious, Evil Network Of Mayhem; no, really). DC Entertainment's fan-favorite New Teen Titans fought against H.I.V.E. (Hierarchy of International Vengeance and Extermination), while on television, Knight Rider introduced the world to F.L.A.G. (Foundation for Law And Government). In the same period, Calvin and Hobbes, of course, had G.R.O.S.S. (Get Rid Of Slimy girlS) to keep the world safe from cooties.

The fact that they mostly re-emerged in kids' media is telling, especially considering their disappearance after that brief resurgence. For whatever reason, the trend had passed, and the idea of naming your spy organization after an acronym with an increasingly tenuous definition had become at best passé, if not just a joke. The acronym spies were, apparently, out in the cold — until now, it seems.

Time will tell if the acronym organizations are here to stay, or whether this is an odd coincidence. Signs are unconvincing in either direction; there are others beyond S.H.I.E.L.D., U.N.C.L.E. and S.P.E.C.T.R.E. — the CW's Arrow features A.R.G.U.S., The Flash has S.T.A.R. Labs (Admittedly, not a spy organization, but still), and the current Doctor Who has revived U.N.I.T. — but it feels too early to make any grand claims for a full-scale revival just yet. Let's wait and see if someone can come up with a suitable definition for R.E.V.I.V.A.L. first, if nothing else.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is released Aug. 14.