When is a leak not a leak? Last month’s release of the Afghan war logs — tens of thousands of classified documents unveiled by the Web site WikiLeaks — stretched the semantics of leak to a bursting point.

“The word ‘leak’ just doesn’t seem adequate for a data dump and security breach of this magnitude,” wrote Peter Feaver, a professor of political science at Duke University, in a blog post for Foreign Policy. “This is not so much a leak as a gusher.” Jack Shafer of Slate concurred: “To call the torrent of information about the Afghanistan war released by WikiLeaks a mere leak is to insult the gods of hydrodynamics.”

Our canonical images of leakiness involve liquid seeping out through small openings in something — a dripping faucet, a roof letting in rain, a boat with a cracked hull. Physical leaks can be stopped with a patch or some other reinforcement, as when the little Dutch boy plugged that faulty dike with his finger. But political leaks have strayed far from their literal foundation.

The metaphor of confidential information leakingout is, in fact, an ancient one. In “The Eunuch,” a comedy by the Roman playwright Terence from the second century B.C., one character says of his inability to keep a secret, “I am full of holes, I leak at every point” (“Plenus rimarum sum, hac atque illac perfluo”). In English, blabby talkers (stereotypically women) have been called leaky since the late 17th century. And the phrasal verb leak out has been used for the revelation of secrets since at least 1806, when the British journalist William Cobbett, an advocate for parliamentary reform, wrote, “When any valuable information leaks out, let us note it down.”

An early glimpse of how leak entered American political vocabulary comes in John C. Frémont’s 1887 memoirs, which recount a political event leading up to the Mexican-American War, when Secretary of State James Buchanan “discovered a leak in his department.” Buchanan needed to patch a leak from below, but by the end of World War II, leaks could just as likely come from above, in the form of information revealed to reporters by high-ranking officials who didn’t want to be identified. As James Reston wrote in a 1946 New York Times dispatch on postwar peace negotiations, “Governments are the only vessels that leak from the top.”

Reston’s observation rang true with Daniel Schorr, the veteran newsman who died last month at 93. Schorr was an old hand at the leaking game, having reported for CBS News on the damaging disclosures that befell the Nixon administration, from Daniel Ellsberg’s release of the Pentagon Papers to the Watergate secrets passed on to The Washington Post by Mark Felt, known at the time only as Deep Throat. (Nixon’s would-be leak-pluggers, the “plumbers,” only made matters worse, of course.)

Schorr lost his job at CBS over a leak, which he described in his autobiography, “Staying Tuned,” as “the most tumultuous experience of my career.” In 1976 he received a draft copy of a secret House Intelligence Committee report on illegal C.I.A. and F.B.I. activities, which he in turn leaked to The Village Voice. Schorr was revealed as The Voice’s source, but he refused on First Amendment grounds to divulge who gave him the report.

A keen observer and instigator of Washington leaks, Schorr was equally perceptive about the word leak itself. “Originally, when information ‘leaked,’ ” he was quoted as saying by William Safire in a 1982 On Language column, “it was thought of as an accidental seepage — a lost document, a chauffeur’s unwary anecdote, loose lips in the Pentagon. Today, when information ‘is leaked,’ it is a witting (if sometimes witless) action. One leaks (active) to float or sink an idea, aggrandize self (the ‘senior official on the secretary’s plane’) or derogate an opponent.”

It was astute of Schorr to spot the transformation of leak into an active, intransitive verb with the source of information as the subject. The usage isn’t entirely new — for example, an 1897 article in The Daily Argus News of Crawfordsville, Ind., referred to attempts to find “the man that ‘leaked’ about the blackballing” of Gov. James A. Mount. But in modern political parlance, it’s not necessary to say that someone “leaked something” or even “leaked about something”; the verb can stand alone. When private postings from the e-mail list JournoList got some unwelcome exposure in June, a headline on Politico read, “JournoList wonders who leaked.”

Schorr died two days before the mother of all leaks made the news, when The New York Times and other papers published reports based on the WikiLeaks data dump from Afghanistan. In its very name, WikiLeaks marries old-fashioned political leaking with Web 2.0 methods of sharing information in a collaborative, bottom-up wiki style. (The original “wiki,” even before Wikipedia, was WikiWikiWeb, named in 1995 by the computer scientist Ward Cunningham after the Hawaiian word for “fast” — inspired by Honolulu International Airport’s Wiki Wiki Shuttle.)

Do we need new terminology for leaking on such an immense scale? Perhaps we can take a cue from linguistic debates over BP’s notorious oil-well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. After the catastrophic extent of April’s accident became apparent, puny words like spill and leak suddenly seemed inadequate to many commentators. Wendalyn Nichols, editor of the newsletter Copyediting, proposed rupture as an alternative label, evoking “a wound that can’t clot, that is not self-healing.” With WikiLeaks capable of uploading even more classified material from the Afghan theater, the rupture in our wartime intelligence apparatus may prove equally difficult to repair.

Ben Zimmer will answer one reader question every other week.


Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/22/magazine/22FOB-onlanguage-t.html

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