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11 August 2004 @ 13:42
Background on on background  

Philip Resnik has an interesting Language Log post about what it means to repeat something that one's interlocutor has just said, with special reference to the case in which one is Condoleezza Rice and one's interlocutor is Wolf Blitzer. The relevant snippet of dialogue is:

BLITZER: Let's talk about some of the people who have been picked up, mostly in Pakistan, over the last few weeks. In mid-July, Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan. There is some suggestion that by releasing his identity here in the United States, you compromised a Pakistani intelligence sting operation, because he was effectively being used by the Pakistanis to try to find other al Qaeda operatives. Is that true?

RICE: Well, I don't know what might have been going on in Pakistan. I will say this, that we did not, of course, publicly disclose his name. One of them...

BLITZER: He was disclosed in Washington on background.

RICE: On background. And the problem is...

Resnik argues that Rice's repetition of the phrase "on background" amounted to a confirmation of Blitzer's assertion that Khan's identity had been disclosed. Around about this point, I realized that if I wanted to evaluate this claim, it would be really helpful if I had a clue what "on background" actually meant.

Now, I consider myself to be pretty adept with a search engine—if I don't know something, I generally know how to find it. But "on background" is a tricky term to search for, being composed of a common preposition followed by a seriously polysemous noun. If one Googles "on backgound," one finds plenty of information on background checks and information on background images, but precious little on "on background" itself. (One also finds a blog On Background, which apparently takes its title from the idiom, but does not define it in any immediately obvious place.)

Informed Comment, another blog commenting on the Rice/Blitzer interview (in a more informed way than I), provided the crucial clue:

I had been assuming that the name was given out at the Sunday briefing. But maybe not. Though, if the name was given on background, would they have recorded it in the transcript?

Aha! So "on background" is probably somewhere in the same semantic field as something like "off the record." Which means that if I search for pages containing both phrases, I just might find one that tells me the difference between them.


What it means, roughly, is "not for attribution," although the five Washington Post journalists surveyed in the above-linked article didn't entirely agree on exactly how much information about the source of an "on background" comment could permissibly be revealed.

So... it sounds like Rice's repetition meant: "Yeah, we told you his name, but we didn't tell you you could say who told you."

Glad to have that cleared up.

Nuværende humør: palindromic
-entangledbank on 11. August, 2004 11:55 (UTC)
Oh good, I hadn't heard it either. I immediately assumed it was something there's a different term for in Britain, and I thought of 'lobby system'. But that's different, so is this a new Capitol Hill euphemism for 'off the record'.

If you'll forgive a very vague story, I once heard/read that a French minister, possibly Toubon or the President or the Prime Minister, was giving a press conference about enforcing the Loi Toubon, and told the assembled reporters, 'Ce que je vais dire est off the record.'