Tuesday, July 29, 2003

On language
We have all become accustomed to unusually cynical doublespeak emanating from Washington in the last few years. But the current abuse of redaction is pissing me off, and since it is a little more subtle than the usual inanities, I draw it to your attention. Here's an example, from a 7/29 Times AP story:
Declassifying 28 pages of redacted material, as has been requested by the Saudi government and some members of Congress, would "compromise our national security and possibly interfere with the investigation of the events of Sept. 11," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.
Here are the relevant O.E.D. definitions of redact:
4. In modern use: a. To draw up, frame (a statement, decree, etc.).
1837 CARLYLE Fr. Rev. I. V. ii, The oath is redacted; pronounced aloud by President Bailly. 1845---Cromwell (1871) I. 101 The House of Commons..was busy redacting a �Protestation�. 1860 W. G. CLARK in Vac. Tour. 46 A council of ministers was held in the palace..: they were engaged in redacting the two proclamations.

b. To put (matter) into proper literary form; to work up, arrange, or edit.

1851 CARLYLE Sterling III. v, Sterling..redacts it in a Times leader. 1884 Times 1 Nov. 9 Their observations are recorded, tabulated, digested, and redacted in every possible way.
As you can see, redacting is editing, not excising, or eviscerating, or eliminating the important parts. At most, redacting might involve some reducing, by these definitions. The root, re + agere, latin for to drive back, explains what the word really means even more clearly, which is indeed something like a reduction, in the sense of "cooking off" the extraneous material from the essence of a text. One of the primary meanings in antiquity was to restore, and later it even meant to emend or correct* -- nearly the opposite of the present abuse. The way the word is used in textual criticism is also instructive: it means a version or "re-telling" (potentially involving reduction) of one text in another. E.g., "Homer," is a redaction of archaic Greek oral tradition. Finally, American Heritage gives no indication of any uniquely American perversion of the word.

Thus, in no sense can any of the administration's revisions be understood as redactions.

*Lidell and Scott, the O.L.D., and Du Cange give no examples of this sense with a textual object, but it would not be impossible, to judge by the examples they do give.

8/5: Just recieved a familiar-sounding email from William Safire about this. It appears that the paper of record can't imagine anyone being interested in a question of language except the venerable pedant. Which would explain their slavish abuse thereof.

5/20/04: It has come to my attention since beginning this "blog" thing that I am not a very good writer. Therefore, let me explain that the point of this is not to wage a quixotic battle against an uncouth linguistic novelty. Lexicographically speaking, the die is cast, and I'm sure we will see a new definition added soon. This, however, is funny, because the new meaning is in some ways the opposite of the "real" meaning of the word -- but the orwellian implications are lost on people because they have no idea what this "real" meaning is.

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