I am looking for the word that describes someone that does something for a hidden or secretive reason that is hard for others to understand because that person wouldn't seem like the type to do such a thing.

An example could be a very childish person going to a party and others think that just wanted to go to have a good time, however that person secretly has a much more important role that is seemingly very sophisticated and well thought out. This intention or motive is hard for others to pick up on.

I guess another example could be a character in a game or tv show that seems very nice on the outside but has a hidden ulterior motive that it seemingly can be both beneficial but disliked by the one who is in the dark.

It is like the person is concealing this hidden trait for the benefit of others.

  • You could say your very childish person has a hidden agenda, or ulterior motive, but they're both normally used in derogatory contexts (and they're both two-word terms). And inscrutable, for example, carries no implication of appearing to be "unthinking". I think you might have to settle for something less precise, such as [unexpectedly] thoughtful. Commented Apr 3, 2016 at 19:19
  • Does a sheep in wolf's clothing begin to come close to capturing the meaning that you're looking for?  Or something like Robin Hood, who was a criminal, but for altruistic purposes? Covert altruist? Commented Apr 3, 2016 at 19:30
  • Please provide an example of the important role in the party example.
    – Lawrence
    Commented Apr 4, 2016 at 0:03
  • 1
    You just described the Batman., He's a silent guardian, a watchful protector. A dark knight.
    – NVZ
    Commented Apr 4, 2016 at 4:26
  • An important role? The seemingly childish person went to the party to secretly observe the people because they were possibly in danger
    – Alex
    Commented Apr 4, 2016 at 12:06

4 Answers 4



Kept secret, especially because it would not be approved of.


not candid or sincere, typically by pretending that one knows less about something than one really does

both from Google.

  • Thankyou, surreptitious is a word that very closely resembles what I was trying to find.
    – Alex
    Commented Apr 4, 2016 at 12:04
  • @Alex: Well, that's confusing: You say you are looking for the word that describes someone with hidden but good intentions, and then you praise a word that's loaded with negative connotations. Commented Apr 4, 2016 at 16:52
  • @Scott I wouldn't say it is loaded with negative connotations, in fact, I would use it when I didn't want to sound negative. It is distinct from deceitful in that way. Mom though I was at the library, but I was surreptitiously shopping for her birthday present. Its a word often used to describe your own or a friend's actions when you don't want to use deceitful.
    – Phil Sweet
    Commented Apr 4, 2016 at 17:02
  • "..., especially because it would not be approved of."  I found two definitions that included the word "sneaky." Commented Apr 4, 2016 at 17:04
  • @Scott Sneaky has a more limited use. It describes motion going undetected. Perhaps it is a cultural thing. One can be proud of an artful deception, yes? Secretive behavior, and preserving privacy are not bad things. Many surreptitious behaviors would be considered cultural norms. Hiding presents, for example. Others wouldn't be, like reading someone else's mail.
    – Phil Sweet
    Commented Apr 4, 2016 at 17:42

Well, there are any number of expressions you can use to describe a person whose motives are unclear to you. The first one which came to my mind:

Jimmy plays his cards pretty close to his chest.

This expression means, in part, that Jimmy does not give too many clues as to what he's thinking, feeling, or intending to do. I guess the expression comes from gambling (playing poker) with playing cards (i.e., king, queen, jack, hearts, spades, etc.), since a person who doesn't want his fellow gamblers to see what cards he's holding will hold those cards very close to his body. This ensures there will be "no peeking," which would otherwise give a competitor a distinct advantage.

Another possibility comprises two words:

hidden motive,

as in

Sally keeps her motives well hidden.

Or, with slightly different words,

Sally is hard to figure out.


Heather is a tough nut to crack.

This idiom can mean a number of things, but one meaning is that Heather is hard to figure out.

How about

"Mark is a man of mystery"?


Mark is an enigma wrapped in a conundrum.

Some fairly prosaic alternatives might also include,

  • He's hard to read.

  • She's hard to figure out.

  • He's a man of mystery.

Finally, the great teacher Socrates had a way, sometimes, of concealing his motives as he engaged in dialogs with people. He might, for example, feign ignorance, allowing his interlocutor to think that he (the interlocutor) is in the know, when in fact he is not. After a little give and take, Socrates manages to put the interlocutor in his place. (Whether or not he feels salty is another matter, since some folks are simply slow learners.) I guess you could call Socrates

"a sly old fox"!

  • I'll not read it in depth, as I think the question has too many possible shades of answers (as you imply). But a star for effort. Commented Apr 3, 2016 at 21:48

He had an ulterior motive for going to the party; it wasn't to have a good time - it was to flirt with the girls and make his ex girlfriend jealous, since she unceremoniously dumped him.


not look the part

look the part

(idiomatic) To appear suitable for a particular kind of work, position or role. If you want to be a successful business person, you have to look the part. We were going to cast him in our new movie but unfortunately he didn't look the part.


Appearances can be deceiving

Prov. Things can look different from the way they really are. Edward seems like a very nice boy, but appearances can be deceiving. Jane may look like she doesn't understand you, but she's really extremely bright. Appearances can be deceiving.

McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs

one cannot judge a book by its cover

One can't rely on outward appearances to know what something or someone is really like. For example, He seems very quiet, but you can't judge a book by its cover. [First half of 1900s]

The American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer

not show one's hand

show one's hand

Fig. to reveal one's intentions to someone. (From card games.) I don't know whether Jim is intending to marry Jane or not. He's not one to show his hand. If you want to get a raise, don't show the boss your hand too soon.

McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs

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