What Do Wikiality and Leaked Secrets Have in Common?

Posted by Mark Peters

The marriage of two concepts that err on the side of sharing information.

The recent publishing of the Afghan War Diary on WikiLeaks put that website in the news like never before. WikiLeaks described it as “an extraordinary compendium of over 91,000 reports covering the war in Afghanistan from 2004 to 2010.” Though some find the content to be mostly ordinary, the U.S. government is peeved enough to demand the return of the info. It’s the biggest leaking case since Richard Armitage snitched out Valerie Plame back in 2003. Given the hubbub, it’s a great time to look at the word “WikiLeaks.”

The website WikiLeaks has been around since 2007 and is a self-described “multi-jurisdictional public service designed to protect whistleblowers, journalists, and activists who have sensitive materials to communicate to the public.” The amount of material on the site is brain-boggling: Just a glance through the site turns up documents on Guantanamo Bay’s use of psychologists in torture, Henry Kissinger transcripts from the 1970s, info on the nuclear capability of many nations, descriptions of secret fraternity rituals, and the “Command Chart of Scientology.” Seeking to be “a buttress against unaccountable and abusive power,” the site provides a forum for concerned folks in the know—whether in government, business, or elsewhere—to share information. Their goals are lofty: “What conscience cannot contain, and institutional secrecy unjustly conceals, WikiLeaks can broadcast to the world.” 

The first half—“wiki”—has been omnipresent since Wikipedia began exciting readers and frustrating college professors in 2001. But “wiki” is older, and the Oxford English Dictionary traces the meaning—“a type of web page designed so that its content can be edited by anyone who accesses it, using a simplified markup language”—back to 1995. Here’s a 2000 use that shows how “wiki,” which means “quick” in Hawaiian, had a linguistic life of its own: “You've got your code archive, your design reviews, your internal Web site, and for sure you've got a torrent of E-mail. But do you have a Wiki?”

As the wikification of the world continued, the prefix has spread far and wide. Wikigroaning, like Googlewhacking, is an Internet game described by Word Spy editor Paul McFedries: “The practice of locating two similar Wikipedia articles, one useful and the other relatively frivolous, where the frivolous article is substantially longer and more involved than the useful article.” McFedries provides an example showing how the page on Lost’s John Locke puts to shame the page on philosophy’s John Locke. Newspapers have experimented with wikitorials that are editable by readers, while a “wall wiki” is a type of mural. There’s also the successful Wikipedia spinoff, Wiktionary.

Then there’s “wikiality,” which Stephen Colbert coined back in 2006. Colbert was checking out Wikipedia to determine whether in past episodes he had called Oregon “California’s Canada” or “Washington’s Mexico.” Turns out he had used both, and he decided to alter history by rewriting his page so he had always called Oregon “Idaho’s Portugal,” making this “…the opinion I’ve always held. You can look it up. If only the entire body of human knowledge worked this way. And it can, thanks to tonight’s word: Wikiality.” By “bringing democracy to knowledge,” Colbert encouraged viewers to triple the number of African elephants on Wikipedia, which, by the logic of wikiality, would solve everything for the poor elephants and anyone worried about them.

Meanwhile, “leaky” has meant “not reticent, blabbing” since the 1600s, though not with the current sense of Deep Throat-ing government intel. This 1692 use, though sexist, demonstrates the older sense well: “Women are generally so leaky, that...I have hardly met with one of the Sex that could not hold her Breath longer than she should keep a secret.” Memories as well as words were compared to liquids that could squirt out of the ol’ brain bucket, as seen in this 1703 example, which is true in any century: “Our Memories are exceeding feeble, leaky and forgetful.”

The current meaning—“to allow the disclosure of (secret or confidential information)”—dates from at least 1859. This 1916 OED cite shows a little self-consciousness about the term: “Here I am beginning to ‘Leak information’, (when I have to read daily a solemn W.O. Letter, saying that no talk of the War is ever to be indulged in, even in private letters.)” That self-consciousness is long gone, and the term is commonly used whenever a would-be secret is exposed. The variation “leaker” has been used since at least 1969 for what some might call a snitch, squealer, or stool pigeon: “Guilty leakers have been known to get the sack, but strenuous efforts are usually made to keep this out of the papers.

The marriage of wikiality and leaking in “WikiLeaks” is a perfect match—more like Jim and Pam than cocaine and waffles. It’s hard to know whether to trust a wiki-something or a leak, but they both err on the side of information. Despite their risks, both really are about “bringing democracy to knowledge,” as Colbert put it, or at least putting info into greater circulation. Unless you’re a government hack or corporate scum, that’s a pretty wonderful thing.