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Ask Molly: What's in a Name?

August 5, 2021


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Dear Molly,

I’ve often heard people refer to CIA by its location: Langley. This has me wondering 1) why is a government organization referred to by its location and 2) where does “Langley” come from? I thought CIA was in McLean, Virginia.

~ What’s in a Name?

* * * * *

Dear What’s in a Name?,

Let’s be honest; is any novel, television show, or movie about spycraft complete without hushed conversations featuring some veiled reference to the powers-that-be in “Langley?”  I mean, what self-respecting spy could even think to refer to his or her employer by name? That’s tradecraft 101. Okay, all joking aside, for all of the over-fictionalization of intelligence work by our friends in Hollywood, this is one they get right. The name has become ubiquitous with the Central Intelligence Agency and, until your question, I hadn’t given it a second thought.

Let me address your two questions in order. Langley, as a reference to CIA, is about as old as the Agency itself. The nickname started when the young intelligence agency first identified a location for its new headquarters compound in Langley, Virginia, a community in the census-designated town of McLean, Virginia. News clippings from the 1950s referring to the worksite of what would become CIA headquarters identify the location as “Langley,” and in a booklet prepared to inform Agency employees (then working in Washington, D.C.), of their new building, the text noted that “the Agency address will be shown as Langley, Virginia.”

And so, the connection was born quite early in CIA’s history, both as a reference to the physical area and as a colloquialism referring to the organization. The notion of referring to an organization or industry by something that is closely related (e.g., a location, building, etc.) is not entirely unique to CIA. For instance, the emerging tech industry in California is known by many as Silicon Valley and the Department of Defense is often referred to by its headquarters building, the Pentagon. And yes, there is a name for the practice of referring to things by something closely associated with it: a metonym.

With that out of the way, let’s rewind even further in history, to 1719 when a man named Thomas Lee purchased a tract of land from Lord Thomas Fairfax and named it Langley after his ancestral home in England. The land changed hands over the ensuing years, but the name Langley remained. By the time of the Civil War, records show that the area had become quite prominent as a township outside of Washington, D.C. The Atlas of Fifteen Miles Around Washington (dated 1878) shows Langley in an enlarged marginal insert titled “Langley P.O.,” presumably a reference to the Langley post office, which existed until the beginning of the 20th century.

It’s around this same time that John McLean, the namesake of present-day McLean, Virginia, and president of the Washington Gas Light Company, comes into the picture. McLean oversaw the construction of the Great Falls and Old Dominion Railroad which subsequently expanded the populations of both Langley and nearby Lewinsville, Virginia. In 1910, post offices for both of these towns were closed and replaced by one named after McLean in honor of his role in the area’s growth.

Still, the name Langley stuck around in an unofficial capacity, its namesake living on in various McLean landmarks such as Langley High School, Langley Fork Park, and yes, the CIA. Err, sorry, I meant Langley.

~ Molly

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