Monday, August 23, 2010


The language column in Sunday's New York Times magazine tries to tell the story of the use of the term "leaks." Interesting, but wrong in one important respect: the usage is much older than the article suggests. The terminology of leaking information, as well as the fact of leaks, is over 210 years old. Here's John Quincy Adams, then posted abroad, writing to a colleague in 1798.

“The circumstance which you mention, proving that your private letters in cipher to the Secy. Of State, cannot escape the inspection of persons [not] entitled to them, is provoking, Our Government (I’m ashamed to say it, but it is a lamentable truth) our Government has in fact no more retention than a sieve. Everything leaks out, either through treachery or ungovernable curiosity or misplaced confidence. There is not the least safety for a man to tell them any thing that he is not willing to have proclaimed upon the house tops. I have complained again & again upon the subject, but to no purpose. I now give up the point, take it for granted that secrecy is not understood to be a property of good government with us, and mean to act accordingly.” John Quincy Adams to William van Murray in Berlin, July 7, 1798[emphasis supplied]

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