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The eagle flies at midnight.

What's the origin and meaning of this idiom?

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Where did you hear this? Please can you provide some context? –  Hugo May 4 '12 at 18:29
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4 Answers

up vote 8 down vote accepted

I've never heard it before, certainly not as some kind of common phrase - but it sounds to me like the sort of line you'd hear in a cheesy wartime spy movie. Some sort of code phrase to inform your accomplices of your plans.

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Helpful reference: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Code_word_(figure_of_speech). I also found a discussion thread with various code phrases from movies: medialine.com/medialineUBB/… –  Chris Dwyer Nov 19 '10 at 21:17
    
As others have pointed out, it definitely occurs as a 'code or pass-phrase' in the 1984 movie Top Secret. The obvious corrolary which has not been pointed out is that as a rule, such 'pass-phrases' are specifically intended to have little if any meaning. If they did have meaning they might get used quite naturally in other contexts, which would make it difficult for the intended recipient to be sure he really had been given 'the signal'. –  FumbleFingers May 9 '11 at 14:32
    
It may have also been influenced by "The Eagle has Landed", a fairly well-known WW2 novel about a Nazi plan to kidnap Winston Churchill via paratroopers. No idea what the context used in the book was, never got around to reading it. –  Sean Duggan Feb 19 at 20:12
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The blues song "Call It Stormy Monday (But Tuesday Is Just as Bad)" has the line "the eagle flies on Friday, and Saturday I go out to play".

Friday was payday for laborers all across the U.S. in 1947 when this song was written. The 50 cent and quarter coins that laborers found in their pay envelopes showed eagle images on their back sides during this era. 1947 was actually the last year that the eagle showed up on the half dollar coin.

See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walking_Liberty_Half_Dollar and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Standing_Liberty_Quarter

When workers paid for their fun during Friday night parties the evening of payday, you could say that "the eagle was flying" whenever they threw coins to a bartender to pay for a drink.

I wonder if this "eagle flies at midnight" phrase is an adaptation of this expression. If that's the source, this phrase would mean that a lot of money was changing hands at midnight.

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I've no idea if there's any truth in your speculation re 'payday', but it certainly has the hallmark of an interesting answer. I like the deft way it links the (later?, but less common and less meaningful) midnight with the Friday version which definitely has meaning, history, and (some) currency. –  FumbleFingers May 9 '11 at 14:20
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This looks right to me; but I think it likely that dollars rather than half-dollars or quarters are meant. From 1793 down to 2008, (except for the Bicentennial issue of 1975-6), every US silver dollar bore an eagle on the reverse. And as an even older song has it, "If I ever get my hands on a dollar again, gonna hang on to it til the eagle grins." - Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out, 1923. –  StoneyB Jun 25 '13 at 0:30
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There's this 'answer' to be found ... http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20070822173707AAiQHG9

but my personal suspicion is that it belongs in the same category as 'my postilion has been struck by lightning' ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/My_postillion_has_been_struck_by_lightning )

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It's one of the stereotypical spy code phrases used in bad and/or spoof movies. I've seen it credited to Top Secret, but not having seen that movie, I can't vouch for the assertion.

I've also seen it as "the rooster crows at midnight", or "the eagle flies at noon". Alas, my Google-fu is not up to finding a definitive source.

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