Fev at Headsup: The Blog has followed up his post on Britosphere headline culture ("Hed noun pileup of the morning", 2/24/2009), and my comments ("UK death crash fetish?", 3/1/2009), with "Nude pic row vicar resigns", which features great noun strings like "Blast Kelly" (a girl named Kelly involved in an explosion), "George row doc" (a brain surgeon who tried to get the dying George Harrison to sign a guitar), and "Kid porn shame councillor".
A few minutes of search in the journalistic Britosphere will turn up dozens of things like "Man guilty of Potter actor murder", "Pedestrian death driver jailed", "Canada bus beheading verdict due", "Student fling teacher dodges jail", "Dancing black hole twins spotted", "Compromise seen on BT broadband build plans", …
As Fev pointed out, U.S. media seem to do this sort of thing more rarely; and they do it differently. This morning's New York Times gives us "Afghan Business Empire", "Health Reform Drive", "War Crime Arrest Order", and so on. But these seem different — normal English prose might well refer to an "Afghan business empire" or a "war crime arrest order", but not (I think) to a "student fling teacher" or the "safari death crash Britons".
So this is a sociological puzzle, a linguistic puzzle, and a historical one. Is there really a systematic difference between British and U.S. headline culture? Is the difference purely quantitative (more frequent noun compounds) and lexical (particular phrases like "death crash"), or are there constructional ("X row Y" to mean "the Y involved in a scandal over X") and syntactic differences? And when and why did all this start? (The London broadsheets in 1774 didn't run headlines like "Tea tax row governor replaced".)
[Let me make it clear that I'm not complaining. I believe that these headlines are usually clear enough to those who are used to them, and who are following the stories they allude to. They don't fill me with disgust or rage, just curiosity.]