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The Independent Online

"THE leak," claimed a jubilant Daily Mirror, "was the biggest and potentially most explosive since Sir Robert Walpole delivered the first financial statement." I didn't know any of Chancellor Walpole's budgets had been leaked, and even if they had been the leak would surely not have exploded; but let's not be pedantic. Explode is now pretty well a dead metaphor. Not so leak. That has kept the sense of its original meaning ever since naval men began to talk about the leaks in their ships, except that in the 15th century the leak was the hole, rather than the stuff that poured through it - and that in those days it usually poured in, whereas the leak that excited the Mirror was of the sort that pours out, so much commoner now.

Indeed, pours is the word. Donald Trelford, who used to edit the Observer, wrote last week that when he was in the chair he was "almost drowned" in leaked memos from civil servants who didn't like Margaret Thatcher's policies. So the mariners and mandarins have differed in another way: the mariners didn't make holes in their own vessels, unless they wanted to scupper themselves.

I'm not sure when leak was first used about information as well as about such things as water; the OED has a quote from 1832 about the inadvertent "leaking out" of news, no blame attached, just one of those things. But it also quotes Sir Roger L'Estrange, the Tory pamphleteer, as complaining in 1692 about "leaky" women who couldn't stop gossiping (a remark he'd hardly have dared make now). It looks as though leaky may have been a Shakespearean invention; it appears in Antony and Cleopatra, but only as a simile, comparing Antony to a sinking ship. It was in Shakespeare's time, incidentally, that people with full bladders started saying they were going to leak.

Nicholas Bagnall