December 28, 2004

Unredacted discussion

A little while back I sent the American Dialect Society list a link to Mark Liberman's posting on redact(ed), and we were off and running. Here I reproduce most of this discussion, unredacted ('not redacted'; see below for un-redacted 'with redaction undone'). As far as I now know, the verb redact (along with the derived noun redaction) began as a learnèd synonym for edit; developed a specialized sense in legal contexts; extended its usage in legal contexts; and then spread into more general usage as a (euphemistic) synonym for censor 'remove, black out', while preserving specialized uses in some contexts.

Mark's examples are of REDACTED being used as a reference to blacked-out bits of text that are "classified" or "sensitive" -- effectively, as a replacement for the unpleasant participle CENSORED. But the ADS-L discussion begins with John Baker's observation that in his world the verb redact is more specific than edit, scarcely overlaps with censor, and is genuinely useful:

(12/22/04) I think it's just a case of an obscure word being tapped to fill a need. I have to redact documents on a regular basis (i.e., edit them to remove identifying, privileged, or irrelevant information). If that were to be described as just editing them, it would not be clear without additional explanation, and I cannot offhand think of any other words that would make sense.

Redaction, in this sense, is what we do when we remove or disguise identifying information in corpora. Redaction, in this sense, is the imperative of our Institutional Review Boards and Human Subjects Committees.

I was up to bat next. I didn't quite get Baker's point (I preserve the typographical conventions of the original):

(12/22/04) i think the question here is: when and in what circumstances did "redact" develop from its general 'edit' sense (reported by NSOED from the mid-19th century) -- essentially, a fancy or technical *synonym* of "edit" -- to this more specific sense? the development is natural enough, but it wasn't inevitable (though, like all linguistic changes, from the point of view of the users of the innovative form it might seem so).
in any case, the long-established verb for this sort of activity was "censor" (and "black out" could easily have been specialized for this purpose; it describes well the particular method used for censoring, and is appropriately restricted to written or printed material [1]). at some point someone decided that "censor" needed replacement (and fixed on the learned verb "redact") -- undoubtedly because censorship is so, well, *nasty*. the development looks to me like linguistic laundering of vocabulary.
the development is recent enough that it's not in AHD4, which has only the older, more general, sense. i'm away from my dictionary trove at the moment, so i can't speak about other dictionaries. a lot of the google hits are for the older sense, but then there's:
Pixel-counting can un-redact government docs: A Luxembourgian/Irish security research team have presented a paper on a technique for identifying words that have been blacked out of documents, as when government docs are published with big strikethroughs over the bits that are sensitive to national security. (
Delta Dental Plan will redact all but the last four digits of the SSNs on electronically submitted documents and on ID cards. ... ( pdfs/Fall%202003%20Check%20Up.pdf)
"redaction" has a parallel sense in some contexts, not surprisingly.
[1] is "redact" ever used to describe the censoring of audio material, that is to describe bleeping (out)?

Then Ben Zimmer chimed in with an actual early citation:

(12/22/04) The earliest relevant cite on the Nexis database suggests that US government officials began using "redacted" as a synonym for "censored" in the '70s:
(Washington Post, Dec 19, 1978, A2) Prosecutors in the FBI break-ins case mistakenly circulated to defense lawyers highly classified material that is only supposed to be seen or discussed in a spy-proof vault.
Attorneys for three former top FBI officials charged in the case made the disclosure yesterday in a lively pretrial hearing where they protested Justice Department attempts to get the documents back for censoring as part of a proposal to place strict limits on collecting new information.
[...] The lawyers voiced special opposition yesterday to a government request that they return their clients' grand jury testimony to be "redacted" - censored - of material containing "sensitive compartmented information (SCI)."
A bit more from this case, from an AP wire story that appeared in the New York Times:
(New York Times, Dec 19, 1978, p. A12) Alan I. Baron, who represents the former acting FBI director, L. Patrick Gray 3d, said, "We are being denied the right to conduct a defense. The Government wants an unlimited right to redact information as to intelligence techniques, and that's what this case is all about."
The term "redact" has been adopted by the Government and in this context means censorship of classified material. Barnett D. Skolnik, a Justice Department lawyer, said, "We are redacting in good faith."
Seems clear that the lawyers representing the Government needed a euphemism for "censor" in this case -- it would be difficult for them to say, "We are *censoring* in good faith."

Next, John Baker went back into the legal literature and took things into the '50s:

(12/22/04) It may be that the term began as a legal term, which in large part it continues to be. It certainly predates the '70s. Here's an early use from 1957:
<Justice Bastow and I agree that feasible means should have been adopted to redact DeGennaro's confession and admissions,--before their introduction into evidence,--so as to restrict their contents to his own inculpations, and thus have avoided any possible prejudice to Lombard.> (People v. Lombard, 4 A.D.2d 666, 669 n.2, 168 N.Y.S.2d 419, 423 n.2 (N.Y. App. Div. Dec 10, 1957).)
Here's what the leading legal dictionary, Black's Law Dictionary (8th ed. 2004), has to say:
<redaction (ri-dak-sh<schwa>n), n. 1. The careful editing of a document, esp. to remove confidential references or offensive material. [Cases: Criminal Law 663; Federal Civil Procedure 2011; Trial 39. C.J.S. Criminal Law 1210-1211; Trial 148-153.] 2. A revised or edited document. -- redactional, adj. -- redact, vb.>
I don't think this is the same as censoring, although in some cases both terms might apply. Here's what Black's says about censor:
<censor (sen-s<schwa>r), vb. To officially inspect (esp. a book or film) and delete material considered offensive.>

At this point, I tried to tie the whole thing together:

(12/22/04) this definition of "censor" takes us pretty far afield. the relevant sort of censoring in our context is removal of material because of its possible information value to outsiders (not because it is confidential to the source or because it is offensive). think censoring of wartime letters.
it looks like "redact(ion)" started as a legal term with a specialized meaning (in particular, editing to remove references confidential to sources) and then extended its usage, still in legal contexts, to such editing done for other purposes; the word then encroaches considerably on "censor(ship)" in its restricting-information sense.

And then today Bethany Dumas returned us to Mark's original data:

(12/28/04) I recently received a lengthy legal document from a lawyer. A great deal of information had been removed from the document. The removal was accomplished in each instance by omitting a section of the document. For each instance of removal, this item appeared:

[Late-breaking ADS-L addition, 12/29/04: Doug Wilson observes that redact has shifted in the kind of direct objects it takes:]

It seems to me that the most pronounced novelty in recent use of "redact" is being ignored to some degree.
"Redact" historically means virtually exactly "edit" AFAIK. So if an editor alters a paper by deleting the entirety of its fourteenth paragraph it is conventional to say that the paper was edited, or that the paper was redacted. But I don't think it's conventional in such a case (until recently) to say that the fourteenth paragraph was redacted [or edited]; the fourteenth paragraph would conventionally be said to be deleted, removed, expunged, etc., even edited *out* ... but not just edited or redacted or altered (it's gone!).
Nowadays one sees "redact" applied specifically to the deleted material itself, so that "redact" not only has become specialized to "edit by deletions" (and after all most editing is more by deletions than otherwise) but has drifted away to the extent that it has come to mean "delete entirely", which is generally not within the range of unadorned "edit" or of traditional "redact": "I edited/redacted your paper" would not traditionally be used for "I deleted your whole paper", and "I edited the fourteenth paragraph" would not be the way to express "I removed the fourteenth paragraph entirely".

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at December 28, 2004 11:41 PM