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Getting the Low-down on Up-classify

Reporting on his investigation of Hillary Clinton's email use, F.B.I. Director James B. Comey mentioned several times that the F.B.I. engaged in up-classifying emails. Whatever one's political leanings, this word might strike you as awkward and strange-sounding, but what up-classifying means can be made clear from context:

Of the 30,000-plus emails the bureau reviewed, 113 were determined to "contain classified information at the time they were sent or received... Another 2,000 or so emails were retroactively "up-classified to make them confidential." (Max Fisher, The New York Times, July 5, 2016)

Up-classifying occurs when the content of an email is not classified at the time it was sent, but there is reason to classify it, label it "confidential," after the fact, so the email becomes classified. What might some of the reasons for up-classifying be? Once we know what it is, we should investigate situations in which something gets upclassified. Here, from a New York Times analysis, are a few ways a document can become upclassified:

A document might begin as unclassified but later pass through an office that handles state secrets.  Or a piece of information that is banal on its own might later be referred to in a classified report, making that piece of information also classified. Or a document might be unclassified according to the rules of the agency that created it, but become classified by another agency that uses it. (Max Fisher, NYT, July 5, 2016)

The word up-classification probably seems needlessly complicated, as there seems to be little real difference between up-classification and reclassification, so let's try to understand how this and other "up"-words work.

Other "Up" Words

Other words that start with up may help us understand up-classify better. Words with direction prefixes like down, under, over, and up can vary in how literal the interpretation of the direction word is. For example, take the verb uproot. Uproot literally means to pull something up from below ground to above ground, to take it out so not even the roots are left in the ground. This is a very clear instance of a literal interpretation of up in uproot; it involves upward motion.

An example of a use of up that is less literal, more figurative, is the use of up in updateUpdate means to change, "make new to reflect the most recent information." This use of up is more figurative, or metaphorical, because there is no actual upward motion involved in updating something, nothing is literally going up. For someone looking to update, the past is old news, long ago, behind them. The up in update imagines a timeline, where the past is back and the present is forward and an update moves us forward,  or "up ahead" of the past. It is in this sense that the up in update moves us up, but only in this imaginative sense. The up in up-classify is like this second, more metaphorical version of up, because there is no real upward motion and there is a change from "not classified" to "classified" that can be imagined as an upward movement from a starting point of "not secret" to the next level up, where things are labeled "secret information" when new information is introduced.      

Up-classify is a word that is just starting to be used and talked about in light of the investigation into Hillary Clinton's email scandal. While we are sure to learn a lot more about this word in multiple contexts in the future, it's interesting to examine what we already know by looking at how the word itself is used, how something actually becomes upclassified, and comparing the word to other up-words in our collective lexicon.

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Adam Cooper studied linguistics at Brandeis University and The University of Chicago. Since 2010, he has been working with The Endangered Language Alliance in New York City on documentation and preservation projects. Click here to read more articles by Adam Cooper.