Naughty Naughtie

This morning on the BBC’s radio programme ‘Today’, the presenter James Naughtie apologetically used redact, calling it  ‘that horrible modern word’.

Why does an experienced journalist like him speak in such a way? One thing redact most certainly isn’t is modern. The OED gives its earliest meaning as ‘To bring together in a single entity; to combine, unite’, and it is first attested in the fifteenth century.

What Naughtie was objecting to was its modern use to describe the blacking out of parts of a text for legal or security reasons, or, in the OED’s fourth definition, ‘To put (writing, text, etc.) in an appropriate form for publication; to edit.’ What’s wrong with that? What other word serves the purpose? Even that use isn’t particularly new. The OED’s earliest citation under this definition is from 1829.



Filed under English Language, Language, Vocabulary

13 responses to “Naughty Naughtie

  1. Perhaps some people see it as an Americanism. COCA has 178 incidences of redact and its variants, mainly for redacted. The BNC has precisely none.

    It also seemed to suddenly appear from nowhere a few years ago, connected with some US scandal which I can’t remember, and then be everywhere. Ngram shows an almost eight-fold increase in (US) use since 1970, with Britain in tow, but it appears to to be tailing off here now.

    And as for what other word serves the purpose – for nearly every example I’ve seen, ‘censored’ would have been the apt word. I think this is another reason some people don’t like it; it seems to be a euphemism, in the same vein as ‘collateral damage’.


    • As a matter of interest, as I notice the Guardian have a story about redaction today, and as I was wondering what they used before redaction became a trendy word, I’ve just tried a Guardian site search for parts of the report were censored and parts of the report were redacted. Apart from the dates (the earliest I can find for redacted is 2004), I don’t see a lot of difference in the stories, while admitting that redact does have a more precise meaning than censor.


      • Of the 160 records for ‘redact’ in the Corpus of Global Web-Based English, 71 are from the US, but the UK is in second place with 42.

        My understanding of the current use of ‘redact’ is that it describes the obscuring of names and other pieces of information that might cause harm or embarrassment to governments, organisations or individuals. Censorship seems to spread much wider to include, for example, the removal of entire articles from a newspaper. And isn’t censoring what is done to other people’s texts, while redacting tends to describe a form of self-censorship?


        • dw

          My internal mental lexicon tells me that:
          * “X is censored” means that X is prohibited from publication in its entirety
          * “X” is redacted” means that parts (possibly very small parts) of X have been deleted/blacked out, while the rest is published.

          So it would be possible for a book to be redacted, because all obscene words in it were censored.


  2. Much as I would have thought.

    Yes, the Recency Illusion is one bear trap, and the Etymological Fallacy is another.


  3. Recency illusion 1) – in the first ten pages of a Google site search of the Guardian, not the most backward of papers when it comes to ‘new’ words, the oldest mention I can find is from 2004; the majority being from 2011 onwards. I’m not saying it didn’t exist before then, but it doesn’t seem very apparent looking at this particular mainstream British newspaper.

    Recency illusion 2) – is that Ngram graph an illusion?

    Find me a few examples from mainstream British publications before 2000, say, and I might accept the illusion argument. Even a Google search for ‘Nixon’ ‘redacted’ brings up stuff mainly from2010 onwards.

    I don’t think you’ve really addressed my point. Given that I need a little more evidential persuading that the idea that the recent growth of this expression in British publications is an illusion, what did people use to say before ‘redact’ became popular, or is the practice itself new? And as I suggested earlier, the word ‘censored’ seems to have been used in a very similar way – just check for yourselves.

    This from the Guardian from 2000 –

    ‘Mr Buckley’s report found the Home Office had wrongly withheld sections of The Internet Detective, a guide to online crime for criminal investigators.

    Sections that had already been released to the press were censored, he said, although it was right to withhold those parts that had not already been published. ‘

    My guess is that ‘withholding parts’ would now be referred to as redacting.

    I don’t particularly have anything against this word, and I’ve already agreed that redact and censor don’t have exactly the same meaning. But I can see why some might see it as a word that appears to have become very popular in the media pretty recently, and see it perhaps as a media equivalent of business buzzwords.


    • I think dw’s point was that it’s a mistake to think of ‘redact’ as a recent word. The OED’s 1829 citation is ‘The account of his second expedition was carefully redacted’, which seems close to, but not identical with, the current meaning. I suspect that the actual practice of blacking out certain passages in a text is itself relatively new, and ‘redact’ has found a new role in being used to cover it. Perhaps it is not so much the word that people object to, as the practice it describes.


    • Recency illusion 3) – I don’t know how far back the Corpus of Global Web-based English goes, but the breakdown is quite interesting. Out of those 42 you mentioned, two don’t exist in the list, and five have no dates or have broken links. Of the remaining 35 ( relatively few of which are from the mainstream media):
      2012 – 19
      2011 – 10
      2010 – 5
      2009 – 1 (the oldest – Times Higher Education – where the word ‘remove’ would probably have done just as well)

      It all basically kicks off with reports of the main tranche of Wikileaks document leaks, starting in 2010.

      Just as well you didn’t cite ‘redacted’ – there were 356 of them (to 524 in the US) – I would have been up all night!


  4. He may have just been apologizing for using redact as government uses it: a euphemism for censor.


  5. My final word – let’s get things in a bit of perspective: James Naughtie called ‘redact’ ‘that horrible modern word’ and he gets pulled up for it, because it’s possible to find an old reference to it in the OED or wherever. But be honest, how many times had you yourself heard it before the beginning of this century? And all the evidence I’ve been able to find suggests that the widespread use of this word in the media is in fact very recent.

    What is important here is the perception. I remember when first coming across the word ‘redacted’, I wondered why they hadn’t just said ‘edited’ or ‘edited out’. I now admit that ‘censored’ was perhaps a bit strong, but ‘edited for publication’ fits the bill.

    As far as I remember the transcripts of the Nixon tapes were heavily ‘redacted’, but did we hear anything about redaction at the time – all I remember is ‘expletive deleted’. So my second point is that there must have been alternatives before this word took off.

    The English language belongs to all of us, not to the prescriptivists, but neither to the ‘scientific’ linguists, and we are all entitled to opinions on words. Personally I have no problem with ‘redact’, but you’ll never catch me saying ‘going forward’, ‘I’m good’ or ‘awesome’ when I feel no awe. That doesn’t mean I consider these incorrect; I simply don’t like them. That is my privilege. Nor do I think James Naughtie suggested ‘redact’ was incorrect, he simply doesn’t like it, and that is his privilege. And in any case it was probably simply a throwaway remark.

    We know from recent surveys that many office workers in the UK find MBA-school buzzwords deeply annoying, and I think it is justifiable to ask if ‘redact’ does not fall into the same category, but being used in the media.

    Surely there’s a place in linguistics for trying to understand why people of a certain age (mine perhaps) are resistant to new words, especially when their use might seem a bit ‘clever’ or ‘trendy’, without recourse to expressions like ‘recency illusion’ and ‘etymological fallacy’. Especially when the ‘recency’ seems to be no illusion at all.


    • As well as its 1829 citation, the OED has further citations from 1851, 1884, 1957 and 1994 in support of the sense ‘To put (writing, text, etc.) in an appropriate form for publication; to edit.’

      The response to the question ‘What’s wrong with “edit”?’, that some might put, is ‘What’s wrong with “redact”?’ ‘Edit’ itself could once have been spurned as a nasty back-formation from ‘editor’. I can’t be sure that I’ve ever used ‘redact’ myself, but I recall seeing it used to good effect in my own profession.

      My objection to Naughtie’s objection is that it reflects a mindset (there’s another one), embodied particularly in his colleague John Humphrys, and one to which many of their BBC Radio 4 listeners will no doubt be sympathetic, that promotes the false notion, in Jonathan Swift’s words, of ‘the continual corruption of our English tongue, which, without some timely remedy, will suffer more by the false refinements of twenty years past, than it hath been improved in the foregoing hundred.’

      I am of rather more than ‘a certain age’ and I don’t suppose I use many new words myself, but I don’t say that their newness, if they are new, makes them horrid. I suspect that what those who object to new words are really objecting to is change itself.


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