Last week, I came across what I thought was an artful headline in my local paper (Calgary Herald; 03/21/1012):
Police looking into death by Balzac
What reader wouldn't be lured into dipping further into this article, into wondering what human tragedy or comedy awaits in the finer print? Are we to be treated to the investigation of a lurid, long-unsolved murder committed by one of the fathers of literary realism? A horrible accident involving a tome flung from a high-rise balcony? Someone suffering an asthma attack after reading a suffocating passage of nineteenth-century French prose?
Well, none of these. As it happens, Balzac is the name of a hamlet just north of Calgary, and the location where the body of a dead man was recently found.
Still, I was chagrined to find that the article's headline has recently been stripped of its offending ambiguity:
In a Language Log post some time ago, Geoff Pullum wrote:
Languages love multiple meanings. They lust after them. They roll around in them like a dog in fresh grass.
Well so do I. They're one of life's more delightful small pleasures, a gentle reminder that things are not always what they seem. Granted, Geoff was talking about polysemy, not garden path sentences. And I'm as ready as anyone to roll my eyes when a journalist's verbal clumsiness leads the reader down the path only to dead-end at a steaming putrid noun pile. But ambiguity has its aesthetic possibilities, and if advertisers can gracefully wield the fine art of parallel meanings, I see no reason why it should be proscribed in headline writing.