The British government called its research on a worst-case scenario in the event of a no-deal Brexit Operation Yellowhammer:

Ministers have published details of their Yellowhammer contingency plan, after MPs voted to force its release.

It outlines a series of "reasonable worst case assumptions" for the impact of a no-deal Brexit on 31 October.

The OED defines yellowhammer as:

a. A large bunting having (esp. in the male) a bright yellow head, throat, and underparts, Emberiza citrinella (family Emberizidae), native to Europe and Asia and introduced to New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa.Also called yellow bunting, yorling, yowlring.

In the United States, the state of Alabama is known as the Yellowhammer State.

There's a book, of the genre chiller, called The Yellowhammer's Cradle, by Sally Spedding, published in 2016, which turns up on Google's NGram with the following tagline:

According to ancient folklore in Scotland and northern England, the yellowhammer bird is said to drink a drop of the Devil's blood every May Day morning . . .

Was the choice of "Operation Yellowhammer" arbitrary, or is there an origin for this use that explains it? Are there previous uses, such as "yellowhammer paper," related to its use as a worst-case scenario?

  • At a guess, like military operation names, the word "yellowhammer" is just an arbitrary choice - it's not intended to have any additional meaning. – KillingTime Sep 12 at 6:28
  • You can see a picture of a yellowhammer here. It doesn't look like a particularly ominous bird.. – Sven Yargs Sep 12 at 7:04
  • In the southern United States, yellowhammer is a common name for what used to be known as the yellow-shafted flicker, a kind of woodpecker), but has since been combined taxonomically with the red-shafted flicker of the more western states as the northern flicker. – Sven Yargs Sep 12 at 18:47
  • @SvenYargs Thank for the bird pics. – Xanne Sep 15 at 23:32
  • Conspiracy theorists and those who enjoy foolish wordplay might be interested to know that "yellowhammer" is an anagram of "Orwell Mayhem". Given the chaotic state of the UK at present, this seems rather ominous. – Phil M Jones Oct 4 at 10:44

The whole purpose of a code name is (or should be) to conceal the nature of the thing referred to. British government code names are invariably arbitrary, and usually taken from pre-prepared lists. A number of British Cold War weapon projects had names consisting of a colour and. another word. Blue Steel was a missile, Green Grass was a radar system. These are now informally called the "rainbow codes". Police and government civil-affairs operations have names like Yewtree, Crevice, Barkertown, Zoomania and Bagel. The names come from an approved list that has been decided in advance. They can be anything from exotic birds to towns on the south coast.

"You pick one off the list," says Bob Cox, the recently retired head of press with the Metropolitan Police.

How do police operations get their names?

Code name

  • 1
    German code names in World War 2 were often taken from Greek mythology, and were sometimes helpful to British intelligence analysts, who tended to have a "classical" education, because the Germans often could not resist making the code name relate in some way to the project. – Michael Harvey Sep 12 at 9:51
  • +1 but there are plenty of examples of codenames published during the operation and always meant to be public (e.g. Operation Trident) – Chris H Sep 12 at 13:18
  • As Chris notes, a codename doesn't necessarily conceal, but it does help identify; Steadfast Jazz is more memorable than NRF November 2013 combined exercise. – choster Sep 12 at 14:44
  • The Americans had Operation Provide Comfort and the British Operation Haven, both to protect the Kurds. I doubt that Overlord was picked from a very long list. Oh well. – Xanne Sep 15 at 23:36

The Phrase Finder, regarding the derogatory usage of yellowhammer, suggests that:

The “Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins” does mention something that would apply to yellow hammer as a derogatory phrase. "yellowhammer -- This bird is named not for any hammer but from the earlier 'yellow-ham' (Old English geolu, 'yellow' plus 'hama' 'covering') in reference to its bright yellow markings.

The European yellow bunting, as it is also called, was once believed to be cursed beause it fluttered about the Cross and was stained by Christ's blood, which colored its plumage and marked its eggs with red forever after. In times past children were encouraged to destroy its 'cursed eggs.'"

("Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins" by Robert Hendrickson (Facts on File, New York, 1997). Page 735.)

  • 1
    Interesting contribution to the discussion of "yellowhammer." As I note in a comment beneath the posted question, a very different bird in the United States has the regional name "yellowhammer"—and its name refers to the yellow feathers in its wings and tail and to its habit of drumming on treas with its bill (it's a kind of woodpecker). – Sven Yargs Sep 12 at 18:52

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