There is a lot that is mysterious and intriguing about the phrase cloak-and-dagger and that is appropriate as it denotes the sense of subterfuge, deceit and acting underhand. The first point of controversy is whether it should be hyphenated. The grammarians amongst us would contend that it should as it is used adjectivally in front of a noun. Alas, modern usage and the wilful disregard for the grammatical niceties of our wonderful language means that it is often seen without hyphens.
The second area of controversy is where it came from. Some authorities point to similar expressions, de cape et d’épée, in French, and de capa y espada, in Spanish, which described a form of drama, popular in the 18th century, featuring characters who, unsurprisingly, wore cloaks draped around the arm to act as an impromptu shield and a sword with which to fight. It may have drawn its inspiration from a fencing move called Rapier and Cloak, described in Alfred Hutton’s Old Sword-Play: The Systems of France in vogue during the XVIth, XVIIth, and XVIIIth centuries, published in 1892.
That the name of this dramatic art form made its way into the English language when Henry Vassall-Fox wrote his Some Account of the Life and Writings of Lope Felix de Vega Carpio in 1806, as Carpio was a pre-eminent playwright. Interestingly, though, Vassall-Fox wrote, “the plays…acquired the name of Comedias de Capa y Espada, Comedies of the Cloak and Sword, from the dresses in which they were represented”. Note that it was a sword, not a dagger, a small point, perhaps, but one that casts a scintilla of doubt as to whether it is the origin of our phrase.
Cloaks and daggers can be found in use in English print in the 18th century without any direct reference to continental drama. In a letter printed in an edition of The Derby Mercury from July 1769 entitled A Speech of a Nobel Earl to a Great Personage, the correspondent gave a dire warning about attempts to dissolve the Union of Great Britain, which, in these troubled times, we would do well to heed; “and those that endeavour to dissolve it, carry a dagger under the cloak of patriotism, to stab their country in the heart”. The sense of this figurative usage is clear; cloaks and daggers denote underhandedness and menace.
Cloaks and daggers were used in a figurative sense in The Examiner on May 26th of the same year, when it ruminated over the judgment in a court case, fulminating that, “Sir Vicary Gibbs will insist that you do it as a blind, as a cheat for the unwary, a cloak for some dagger that you are carrying about you”. A similar usage is to be found in the Morning Post of September 1836; “carrying a dagger against the Church, under the capacious cloak of economy”.
It was not until the early 19th century that cloaks and daggers were associated here with a form of melodramatic play. Bell’s Weekly Messenger of February 3, 1811 reviewed a play in which one of the protagonists, an assassin by the name of Montalvi, “drops his cloak, mask and dagger”. Charles Dickens clearly had this cliched stage device in mind when he wrote, in Barnaby Rudge, from 1841, “it was given to him by a person then waiting at the door, the man replied. With a cloak and dagger? Said Mr Chester. With nothing more threatening about him, it appeared, than a leather apron and a dirty face”. With Dickens’ imprimatur, the phrase took off.
It is difficult to know what to make of all of this. My sense is that cloaks and daggers were well established as a description of a form of menace before their usage as a stage device in Britain. However, it was probably Charles Dickens’ use of the phrase that firmly established it in popular speech.
But I may be wrong and that is the beauty of attempting to trace the origin of phrases.