Difference Between Similar Terms and Objects

Difference Between Overt and Covert

Overt vs Covert

“Overt” and “covert” are two words many people find confusing because both of them can be applied to any kind of activity. And in order to understand how they are very different from each other, we need to look at how each one is defined.

“Overt” means “done or shown openly or plainly apparent” in the Oxford English dictionary. This can refer to all sorts of actions which are done in plain sight or with clear manifestations. Let’s use this sentence as example to illustrate its meaning: North Korea recently showed overt acts of aggression against its sister country South Korea. By using the word “overt” to describe acts of aggression towards South Korea, we know for a fact that there were indeed hostile actions taken by the North Koreans in full display of the public.

Let’s use another much simpler example: John overtly showed signs of affection towards May by giving her flowers and chocolates on Valentine’s Day. It is very clear that John likes May because he gave her gifts on a very special day. Can anyone claim not knowing what John’s intentions are? The answer is no because of the word “overt” which implies John did it in the open and so everyone knew what he gave to May.

“Covert,” on the other hand, means the exact opposite of overt – not openly acknowledged or displayed. This is a very tricky term to use which is why it’s often associated with military and political activities. The word often connotes deception and misdirection which is why it’s seldom used in everyday conversations unless, of course, we are working for the government or some organization that values secrecy. A good example of using this word is this: The CIA is running a covert intelligence mission in Iraq. We know they have an operation ongoing in that area, but we have no details as to what exactly it’s all about.

Let’s use John again to illustrate how “covert” can be used in regular conversations: John bought the flowers and chocolates covertly because he wanted it to be a surprise for May. Analyzing the sentence we know he bought the presents, but we don’t where or when and, if we did, we have no idea who he would give it to. This is what complicates the usage of “overt” and “covert.”

Overt activities have no other representations other than what they appear to be. When a man is walking, we know what he’s doing and so we can say he’s doing it overtly. But when we put in “covert” in the picture, it can still work. How? We know the man is walking, but we have no idea where he’s headed. Even if he appears to be walking towards a coffee shop, we don’t for sure if he’s going inside or just staying outside. Therefore, we can say the man is walking overtly towards the coffee shop but is covertly planning not to go inside.


1.“Overt” and “covert” may be applied to all kinds of activities.
2.“Overt” means “done or shown openly” while “covert” means “not displayed or openly acknowledged.”
3.Both terms can be used at the same time which is why it’s very confusing for most people.

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  1. This is a great explanation of two confusing words. Thanks!

  2. Such a meaningful explanation with examples and terminology.Thanks for help.

  3. In abusive situations, the distinction is necessary…

    i.e overt domestic abuse – husband punches wife, she has bruises and a broken jaw

    i.e covert domestic abuse – husband punished wife by not allowing her to get a job, demeaning her when she has one and insisting she put all earned income into the joint account to prevent her from having financial independence

  4. Good explanation, i can now use the words precisely. Thanks.

  5. Thanks for the explanation

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