The History of ‘Redaction’


As we wait for tomorrow’s follies, I thought it would be interesting to take a detour into the history of the words ‘redaction’ and ‘redact’. Today we know these words refer to those heavy-handed black bars which obscure portions of text in indictments, various court documents, government records and more. But this wasn’t always what these words meant. In fact, the meaning we’re now all buzzing about right now is quite new.

‘Redaction’ has for centuries meant to edit or make something ready for publication. More specifically, or in one context, it meant to take a number of related documents or accounts and streamline them into one single, coherent version. So perhaps you had a few different versions of a story. Or perhaps you had a few different accounts of an event. You’d take these different versions, make an editorial decision about which version to preserve from the portions which were not consistent and make one single document. So if you had versions A, B, C and D, where they don’t match you might pick some snippets from A, some from B, one from C and none from D. This was a redaction.

Most dictionaries actually still refer to this as the dominant definition, though I’d guess that most avid news readers aren’t even familiar with this meaning.

It’s this meaning, for instance, where we get the phrase ‘redaction criticism’ in biblical studies. For a couple centuries critical biblical scholars have known that the books of the bible – especially the oldest portions of the Hebrew bible but also especially the New Testament Gospels as well – were pieced together from a number of different sources.

So for instance the first five books of the bible are thought to include a ‘Jahwist’ source, an ‘Elohist’ source, a few ‘Deuteronomist’ sources. If you can read the bible in Hebrew (and sometimes this is preserved in translation) God goes by different names at different points. This isn’t just for variety. This is supposed to be the residue of different stories that have been woven together. At some point (or actually several points) scribes pulled these different accounts together and wove them together into some version of the bible books we know today. Starting in the 19th century and ever since biblical scholars have used ‘redaction’ criticism’ to reverse this process, to unweave the different sources and come up with some approximate some version of what these separate sources looked like.

These meanings of ‘redact’ and ‘redaction’ go back at least five hundred years in English. The black bar meaning is quite recent and almost certainly comes out of national security or legal usage. The bridge between the two meanings seems to be that sense of compression which you can get a sense of in the pruning process I referred to above.

In any case, what I haven’t been able to find is a clear explanation of the origin of the black bar usage we’re familiar with. The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t even seem to include this new meaning for the word ‘redaction.’ It does include it in the definition of ‘redact’. For ‘redact’ it includes two examples, both from American English, one from 1994 and another from 1957. The latter appears to be from New York state court records.

1957 N.Y. Suppl. (Electronic ed.) 2nd Ser. 168 423 Means should have been adopted to redact De Gennaro’s confession and admissions—before their introduction into evidence.

Even here it’s not totally clear the meaning is precisely the one we’re now familiar with. It could just barely be the old one.

The other example, notably, comes from the Whitewater investigation. This one is quite clear.

1994 Wanderer 11 Aug. 3/3 But most disturbing is a confidential memo Ickes sent to Hillary Clinton on the RTC, which has been redacted from 25 pages to just one paragraph.

There must be a linguist or lexicographer reader out there who knows more about the modern and now wildly dominant definition. Drop me a line!

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