What’s in a Word, Sign or Token? 

What’s in a Word, Sign or Token?

As Freemasons we know and understand the passwords, signs, and tokens (including grips), which are all used as a mode of recognition between members of the fraternity.

These are used in combination with each other and therefore, even if discovered by Cowans or intruders, would mean nothing to those not familiar with the three degrees and beyond.

There can be some confusion as the use of “words”, “passwords”, “signs”, “grips” or “tokens” can be used to mean different things, or are used interchangeably.

Chris Hodapp in “Freemasons for Dummies” uses these terms in his Glossary:

Word or pass: A password used as a mode of recognition between Masons, different for each degree.

Grip or token: A special identifying handshake used by Masons to identify each other, different for each degree.

Sign: A hand gesture used as a mode of identification between Masons, different for each degree.

Whereas H.L. Haywood (Symbolical Freemasonry, 1923) here describes words (or a “pass”) grips, signs, or tokens:

“Words.” In eighteenth century Scotland “the only degree known…was that in which the Legend of the Craft was read, and the benefit of the Mason Word conferred.”

This seems to indicate that the Word meant more than a “pass,” but it is in this latter sense that it seems to have been used by Operative Lodges, and other secret societies, generally.

With us, however, it has become a symbol, and that of a high character, as will be learned in the study of the Third Degree, but at the same time it retains, it may be added, something of its original usage as a password.

“Grips.” It is probable that the earliest form of a secret mode of recognition among Operative Masons was the grip, but what it was we may not know, the nature of the secret having made written descriptions impossible.

Robert Kirk, a Scotch minister, who published a book called “Secret Commonwealth” in 1691, wrote that the Masons of his day “had some signe delyvered from Hand to Hand”;

an entry in the minutes of the Haughfoot Lodge for 1702 gives a brief description of an initiation, in which it is noted that “they then whisper the word as before, and the Master grips his (the candidate’s) hand in the ordinary way”;

but in neither case are we told what the grip was.

“Tokens.” This word, long in vogue among English and American Lodges, is used to describe a sign or grip when given as a brotherly recognition.

It signifies an outward act as evidencing an inward pledge. When one Mason grips another by the hand it is as if he said, “This physical act is the outward sign, or token, of the union of our minds and hearts.”

In popular use it has the same meaning, as when we speak of a little gift as “a token of our regard.”

A brief description and history of the use of passwords, signs and tokens

“A word intended, like the military countersign, to prove the friendly nature of him who gives it, and is a test of his right to pass or be admitted into a certain place. […] the author of the life of the celebrated Elias Ashmole says, ‘Freemasons are known to one another all over the world by certain passwords known to them alone; they have Lodges in different countries, where they are relieved by the brotherhood if they are in distress.’”

– Mackey’s Encyclopædia

Words – or Passwords

Password: something that enables one to pass or gain admission

Watchword: a word or phrase used as a sign of recognition among members of the same society, class, or group. – Merriam-Webster Dictionary

In ancient Rome, the phrase “qui est là” (who goes there?) was used by guards and sentries as a challenge to identify themselves and prove they were authorized to be in a certain area.

This phrase was used as a form of password to gain access to restricted areas such as military camps, government buildings, and other secure locations.

The person being challenged would have to give a pre-arranged password or countersign in order to be granted access.

This practice was common in the Roman army and was used as a means of protecting their communications and identifying friend or foe during battles.

It is not entirely clear if passwords were used in ancient Rome in the same way as they are used today to protect sensitive information or gain access to restricted areas.

However, it is known that various forms of secret signs, codes, and signals were used to identify and protect information within various groups and organizations in ancient Rome, such as military units, secret societies, and political factions.

For example, the Roman army used a system of passwords and countersigns to protect their communications, as well as to identify friend or foe during battles.

Also, some secret societies and political factions used secret symbols, signs, and handshakes as a means of recognizing members and keeping their activities secret.

Passwords have been used by secret societies and other exclusive groups throughout history as a way to identify members and keep their activities and information confidential.

These passwords are often complex and change frequently to protect the society’s secrecy.

They may also be accompanied by other forms of identification, such as handshakes or secret symbols, to ensure that only authorized members can gain access to the society’s information and events.

Passwords for secret societies are often part of their rituals and traditions and are considered a means of maintaining the group’s unity and exclusivity.

Signs, Countersigns and Tokens

“A mode of recognition which derives its name from its object, which is to duly guard the person using it in reference to his obligations, and the penalty for their violation.

The Due Guard is an Americanism, and of comparatively recent origin, being unknown to the English and continental systems.

In some of the old rituals of the date 1757, the expression is used, but only as referring to what is now called the Sign.”

Signs in Masonic ritual


Signs are to be found within each of the three degrees and may differ slightly in certain jurisdictions, but effectively they are another mode of recognition or signal to another Freemason, inside and occasionally outside the lodge.

The “Grand Hailing Sign of Distress” is intended to only be used in an extreme emergency – a bit like smashing the glass on a fire alarm – and we are enjoined that if we see someone giving the sign of distress or hear the plea for help, we are to stop and render aid if at all possible.

There is often confusion between the “Sign of Fidelity’ and the “Sign of Reverence” – in fact on the Soloman UGLE Twitter page there was a post asking “Thumb or no thumb?”

Several Masonic exposes have depicted the signs, grips and tokens. An internet search will throw up the usual multitude of images, misinformation and accounts of people supposedly passing themselves off as Freemasons, but as with the pass/words, they mean nothing unless used in context. One sign is given and another returned.

Brother Benjamin Franklin wrote passionately about signs and tokens:

“These signs and tokens are of no small value, they speak a universal language and act as a passport to the attention and support of the initiated in all parts of the world.

They cannot be lost so long as memory retains its power. Let the possessor of them be expatriated, shipwrecked, or imprisoned; let him be stripped of everything he has in the world; still these credentials remain and are available for use as circumstances require.

The great effects which they have produced are established by the most incontestable facts of history.

They have stayed the uplifted hands of the destroyer; they have softened the asperities of the tyrant; they have mitigated the horrors of captivity; they have subdued the rancour of malevolence; and broken down the barriers of political animosity and sectarian alienation.

On the field of battle, in the solitude of the uncultivated forests, or in the busy haunts of the crowded city, they have made men of the most hostile feeling, and most distant religions, and the most diversified conditions, rush to the aid of each other, and feel a social joy and satisfaction that they have been able to afford relief to a Brother Mason!”

[H.L. Haywood, 1923]

Masonic historian Albert Mackey covers the subject fairly comprehensively in his Encyclopedia:

Signs constitute that universal language of which the commentator on the Leland Manuscript was that “it is a thing rather to be wished than hoped for.”

It is evident, however, that such a substitute for a universal language has always existed among mankind.

There are certain expressions of ideas which, by an implied common consent, are familiar even to the most barbarous tribes.

An extension forward of the open hands will be understood at once by an Australian savage or an American Indian as a gesture betokening peace, while the idea of war or dislike would be as readily conveyed to either of them by a repulsive gesture of the same hands.

These are not however, what constitute the signs of Freemasonry. It is evident that every secret society must have some conventional mode of distinguishing strangers from those who are its members, and Freemasonry, in this respects must have followed the universal custom of adopting such modes of recognition.

The Abbé Grandidier (Essais Historiques et Topographiques, page 422) says that when Josse Dotzinger, as architect of the Cathedral of Strassburg, formed, in 1452, all the Master Masons in Germany into one body, “he gave them a word and a particular sign by which they might recognize those who were of their Confraternity.”

Martene, who wrote a treatise on the ancient rites of the monks (De Antiquis Monachorum ritibus), says that, at the Monastery of Hirsehau, where many Masons were incorporated as Lay Brethren, one of the officers of the monastery was called the Master of the Works; and the Masons under him had a sign which he describes as “pugnam super pugnam pone uicissim quasi simules constructores marum”; that is, they placed alternately fist upon fist, as if imitating the builders of ways.

He also says, and other writers confirm the statement, that in the Middle Ages the monks had a system of signs by which they were enabled to recognize the members of their different Orders.

Krause ( Kunsturkunden iv, page 420) thinks that the Freemasons derived their custom of having signs of recognition from this rule of the old monks.

But we can trace the existence of signs to remote antiquity. In the Ancient Mysteries, the initiates were always instructed in a sign.

Thus, when a wreath was presented to an initiate of the Mysteries of Mithras by another, instead of receiving it, he east it upon the ground, and this gesture of casting down was accepted as a sign of recognition.

So, too, Apuleius (Metamorphoses) describes the action of one of the devotees of the Mysteries of Isis, and says:

“He walked gently, with a hesitating step, the ankle of the left foot being slightly bent, in order, no doubt, that he might afford me some sign by which I might recognize him. “

And in another work (Apologia) he says:

“If any one happens to be present who has been initiated into the same rites as myself, if he will give me the sign, he shall then be at liberty to hear what it is that I keep with so much care.”

Plautus, too, alludes to this custom in one of his plays (Miles Gloriosuos iv, 2) when he says: Cedo Signum si horune Bacohorum est.


“Give me the swn, if you are one of these Bacchantes.

Aside from use of passwords, signs and countersigns in Rome, there is some evidence of similar modes of recognition or protection of secrets in ancient Egypt.

Although there are no primary sources that mention the use of passwords specifically, it is known that various forms of secret signs, codes, and signals were used to identify and protect information within various groups and organizations in ancient Egypt, such as the royal court and religious temples.

These secret signs and codes were often used to protect sacred knowledge and information and were passed down through generations of priests and other elite members of society.

It is believed that these were used to protect the inner workings of religious temples, as well as the political and military plans of the Pharaohs and other members of the royal court.

Ancient Egyptian texts such as the Pyramid Texts and the Coffin Texts, contain references to secret signs and codes used by the priests and other elite members of society.

Archaeological studies of ancient Egyptian temples and other structures have also revealed evidence of the use of secret signs and codes, such as secret chambers and hidden passageways that were used to protect sacred knowledge and information.

Scholars of Egyptology, such as Mark Lehner and Toby Wilkinson, have studied the use of secret signs and codes in ancient Egypt and have written about their findings in books and articles.

The universality of signs and tokens

Signs, in fact, belong to all secret associations, and are no more peculiar to Freemasonry than is a system of initiation. The forms differ, but the principle has always existed.

– Albert Mackey

Signs are everywhere and humans are primed to recognise them. There have been many debates as to whether the ancient Egyptians or other civilisations used ‘Masonic’ signs.

This, of course, is just spurious wishful thinking. So, whilst it may seem that these signs are familiar, it is worth remembering that we only have two eyes, arms, legs, hands and feet, there are only so many distinct motions or gestures the human body can achieve…some 175 in fact!



Mackey states:

Churchward, Yarker, Ward, Cockburn, and a number of other Masonic writers of their way of thinking, have made much of the fact, or at least have tried to, that “Masonic Signs” have been encountered among Congo tribes, Eskimos, Melanesians, the Hairy Ainus, etc., and that on many occasions such tribesmen have responded to Masonic signs.

The difficulty with their “fact” is that there is too much of it. Some 175 separate, distinct, identifiable, nameable motions can be made by the hands, arms, legs, torso, head, eyes, the whole body, etc.; each and every one of those motions has been employed as a “sign” by at least one people, and usually by many, not once but thousands of times.

It would be a strange anomaly if explorers, traders, soldiers, missionaries, and other travelers among the so-called “primitive” people did not encounter “Masonic signs”; as for that, the “Masonic signs” were not originated or invented by Masons, who were never able to alter anatomy, but were chosen by them from among the 175 possible motions, gestures, etc., suitable for use as “signs.”

For at least nine centuries our own Navajo people have had an outdoor ceremony strikingly like our Third Degree; but if one of them who has been made a Mason is asked if they are the same he will smile and say, “They have nothing in common.”

So with a Pueblo ceremony similar to HA.-. (the writer has not only seen and studied these ceremonies on the spot, but has taken part in a few portions of them).

Two young traders of New Mexico (both Masons) rode horseback to San Diego and return without once using a highway, and visited some twenty Indian peoples en route with whom they conversed easily by the still-living, still used old Indian sign language.

A sign in use somewhere, even if identical with one of our own, proves nothing about Freemasonry—Freemasonry never had the slightest connection with “the ancient gods” (which, incidentally, almost never were “gods”; American Indians have never had any “gods”).

In “Consult Sign Talk”, by Ernest Thompson Seton; Doubleday, Page & Co.; Garden City, L. I.; 1918;1725 signs are explained. Frazer’s “Golden Bough” is an encyclopedia of the subject.

“The word token is derived from the Anglo-Saxon “tacen”, which means a sign, presage, type, or representation, that which points out something; and this is traced to “taecan”, to teach, show, or instruct, because by a token we show or instruct others as to what we are.”

Bailey, whose Dictionary was published soon after the Revival, defines it as “a sign or mark”; but it is singular that the word is not found in either of the dictionaries of Phillips or Blount, which were the most popular glossaries in the beginning of the eighteenth century.

The word was, however, well known to the Fraternity, and was in use at the time of the Revival with precisely the same meaning that is now given to it as a mode of recognition.

The Hebrew word “oth”, is frequently used in Scripture to signify a sign or memorial of something past, some covenant made or promise given.

Thus God says to Noah, of the rainbow, “it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth”; and to Abraham he says of circumcision, ” it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you.”

In Freemasonry, the grip of recognition is called a token, because it is an outward sign of the covenant of friendship and fellowship entered into between the members of the Fraternity, and is to be considered as a memorial of that covenant which was made, when it was first received by the candidate, between him and the Order into which he was then initiated.

Neither the French nor the German Freemasons have a word precisely equivalent to token.

Krause translates it by merkmale, a sign or representation, but which has no technical Masonic Signification.

The French have only attachment, which means the act of touching or clasping hands; and the Germans, griff, which is the same as the English grip.

In the technical use of the word token, the English-speaking Freemasons have an advantage not possessed by those of any other country.


Symbolical Masonry, by H.L. Haywood, [1923]

Mackey’s Encyclopedia

Freemasons for Dummies – Christopher Hodapp [Revised edition 2021]

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