The New York Post goes verbless

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On Headsup: The Blog, FEV (Fred Vultee) notes a remarkable confluence of nouns (and one adjective) on the front page of Sunday's New York Post:

Comments by Vultee:

Nothing on here really qualifies as a noun pile, strictly speaking, but it's still impressive by US tabloid standards: four chunks of display type, and not a verb in the bunch:

Shock Murder Claim
Diana Slay Plot
Scotland Yard Probe
Exclusive Author Interview

"Exclusive" is a well-established newspaper noun, but I'd score it as an adjective here, which is something like a single in the top of the 10th after nine perfect innings. Otherwise, we're all nouns, all the time.

It's true that nothing here rivals some of the sublime noun piles from the UK press that we have documented here in the past, like "Fish foot spa virus bombshell" or "China Ferrari sex orgy death crash." But noun-piling is still relatively unusual in US tabloids, so a verbless front page from the Post is enough to make us sit up and take notice. Could it be another facet of what Ben Yagoda has called "the Britishism invasion"? Or is the Post just taking orders from the Murdoch mothership?

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29 Comments »

  1. Buddha Buck said,

    August 19, 2013 @ 11:25 am

    Not directly related to the Diana Slay Plot Shock Murder Claim Scotland Yard probe Exclusive Author Interview, but the page also contains the triple-word chunks "New York Post" and "Late City Final", also verb-free.

    In fact, I don't think there is a single verb on the entire page, including all the ancillary text on the page. At least the NY Times would, in a similar page, have "is fit to print".

  2. ohwilleke said,

    August 19, 2013 @ 11:46 am

    "Murder" and "Slay" are both verbs much of the time. In a headline context it is difficult to determine the part of speech.

  3. ohwilleke said,

    August 19, 2013 @ 11:47 am

    Probe can also be a verb.

  4. Kasper said,

    August 19, 2013 @ 12:23 pm

    May I, on behalf of my fellow British who still value good English (whatever that is), apologise to you transatlantic anglophones for the corrupting influence of our tabloid headlines? ('The Britishism invasion') However, I reckon you guys have had it coming!

  5. Jeroen Mostert said,

    August 19, 2013 @ 12:31 pm

    @ohwilleke: neither "slay" nor "probe" can be verbs here since there are no subjects to agree with them.

  6. Matt Westwood said,

    August 19, 2013 @ 12:38 pm

    As a Brit, I'm quite proud of our export. Journalese is a language all its own, and we invented it.

    Brit journalese invention pride shock. Language Log headline language investigation. Middle-class English dismay embarrassment apologies.

  7. Vardibidian said,

    August 19, 2013 @ 12:40 pm

    If you are looking for words that are often used as verbs, obviously you have 'Shock' 'Murder' 'Claim' 'Slay' 'Plot' 'Probe' and 'Interview', and of course I have heard 'author' used as a verb, but perhaps one oughtn't discuss such things.

    Thanks,
    -V.

  8. Chris Beiser said,

    August 19, 2013 @ 12:42 pm

    Having spent some time writing headlines myself, I would guess that this is an intentional Britishism; considering that we're dealing with British royals, the Post's headline-writers may have decided to conciously mime their cross-Atlantic counterparts' style. The topic itself reflects somewhat of a golden age of tabloids in Britain, and I suspect the headline writers are paying their respects.

  9. Peter said,

    August 19, 2013 @ 12:47 pm

    @Jeroen: while I agree there’s no standard way to parse the headline with slay as a verb, I’m also not aware of any noun usage of it (apart from some irrelevant obsolete ones from weaving technology). Indeed, treating it as a noun feels so alien to me that the least implausible parsing is as some kind of strange inversion/ellipsis for “plot to slay Diana”.

    Perhaps, though, I just read the wrong kind of newspapers — is slay commonly used as a noun in some tabloids, or is this kind of unmarked noun usage of verbs established enough in these settings to be transparent?

  10. Francis said,

    August 19, 2013 @ 1:02 pm

    "Slay" as a noun here is an example of a common tabloid trope — the de-ing-ing of gerunds as a space-saver.

  11. Ben Zimmer said,

    August 19, 2013 @ 1:23 pm

    Nominal "slay" is particularly common in New York Post headlines — so you get "pimp-on-pimp slay," "teen bus slay," "Village gay slay," etc. (See also the comments on this post.)

  12. Richard said,

    August 19, 2013 @ 6:11 pm

    "Exclusive author interview" and "Scotland Yard probe" are each perfectly normal in certain other contexts. We wouldn't give them a second thought if they weren't accompanying the decidedly more impressive "Diana slay plot" and "Shock murder claim."

  13. RP said,

    August 20, 2013 @ 3:16 am

    "Or is the Post just taking orders from the Murdoch mothership?"

    The Murdoch mothership is based in the US, and Murdoch is an Australian who lives in the US and has US citizenship. So this question doesn't make a lot of sense.

    On the other hand, a British journalist (and former Murdoch employee) Colin Myler was executive editor of the New York Post for some years and has been editor-in-chief of the New York Daily News for a year now, so keep an eye on the latter for any sudden increase in Britishisms and noun piles…

  14. Edith T said,

    August 20, 2013 @ 3:23 am

    Apologies for flogging this particular (potentially) dead horse, but, as a non-native English speaker, "Scotland Yard probe" makes very little sense to me with 'probe' as a noun. I read it as something like "Scotland Yard investigate". Then again, I don't know whether in AmE collective nouns usually take singular or plural verb forms…

    OT: I've commented on a couple of other posts on here, but for the life of me I can't remember what name I used. My apologies.

  15. Faldone said,

    August 20, 2013 @ 6:29 am

    @Edith T: Collective nouns in formal singular take singular verbs in Amer Eng. When they are plural they will take the plural form of the verb. E.g., The Cubs are playing the Washington Nationals in a four game series starting Monday. Chicago has cleverly avoided being swept by winning the first game.

  16. chris said,

    August 20, 2013 @ 7:50 am

    "Scotland Yard probe" makes much more sense to me than any attempt to use "slay" as a noun. It's just attributive: a probe that belongs to Scotland Yard. Given what Scotland Yard is, the natural conclusion is that it's a metaphorical probe (an investigation) rather than a literal probe (a device).

    The choice to nounify "slay" is particularly odd given that "kill" as a noun already has at least some history (although I think it would still sound odd here) and is equally short. Maybe they didn't want to use it because of its association with hunting, which could be offensive when applied to a human victim?

  17. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 20, 2013 @ 8:22 am

    Just sharing a crash blossom:

    DeWine adds 6 scientists to test kits

    (Cleveland Plain Dealer, Aug. 17, 2013, unless it was the 16th. I can't find it on line.)

    Mike DeWine, the attorney general of Ohio, added six scientists to the group that tests rape kits (samples from alleged rape victims).

  18. BlueLoom said,

    August 20, 2013 @ 8:46 am

    @Peter:

    "(apart from some irrelevant obsolete ones from weaving technology)

    in which case it is spelled "sley."

  19. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 20, 2013 @ 9:58 am

    The July 31 N.Y. Post had a Brit-style noun-pile hed on a small story inside: http://www.nypost.com/p/news/local/manhattan/preppie_gun_nut_jail_deal_qi0gnWnkK9ImoPh73n2bpN ("Preppie gun nut jail deal" – I guess "preppie" is arguably ambiguous as between noun and adjective), so maybe tectonic plates are starting to shift. But being the "wood" on the front page is a much bigger deal, obviously.

  20. scav said,

    August 20, 2013 @ 4:06 pm

    I can only read "slay" as a verb, but I can't make it function as one in that pile of words.

    The best I can say is it seems to be a huge defective noun-pile containing a word that *isn't even a noun*.

  21. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 20, 2013 @ 4:18 pm

    "slay" and its various derivatives are so common in the N.Y. Post dialect of headlinese that the old Letterman Top Ten list of words used in Post heds included one derivative (this is from the '80's, I think, so a few of the lexical items have since become archaisms):

    10. Co-Ed
    9. Tot
    8. Horror
    7. Straphangers
    6. Mom
    5. Weirdos
    4. Hizzoner
    3. Torso
    2. Herr Steinbrenner
    1. Slayfest/Lotto (tie)

  22. Martin B said,

    August 20, 2013 @ 5:16 pm

    "Nominal "slay" is particularly common in New York Post headlines — so you get "pimp-on-pimp slay," "teen bus slay," "Village gay slay," etc."

    I had wondered about that. To my Australian ears 'slay' sounds odd here (not just because of the nominalisation). "Diana kill plot" or "Diana death plot" would sound more straightforward while preserving the mangled syntax.

  23. Alan Palmer said,

    August 21, 2013 @ 4:43 am

    To my British eyes "slay" seems odd to me, as well, Martin B. It does sometimes appear in good old proper British noun pile headlines, but it does seem like an American import.

  24. Jack said,

    August 21, 2013 @ 4:12 pm

    "Slay" as a noun seems to be confined to the world of the New York Post, or at least tabloids. This is the first time I've ever seen it.

  25. James Wimberley said,

    August 21, 2013 @ 5:12 pm

    ¨Or is the Post just taking orders from the Murdoch mothership?¨
    These are transmitted only as capitalized noun piles. OBAMA TYRANT BIGBROTHER TREASON SCANDAL YESTERDAY – I´m sure others can do better.

  26. RP said,

    August 22, 2013 @ 4:23 am

    I believe I read somewhere that "slay", even as a verb, is primarily a feature of American journalese rather than British. This is certainly backed up by the Oxford Dictionaries Online at http://www.askoxford.com, where "slay" is regarded as "archaic or literary". Its contemporary usage as a synonym for "murder" is noted, too, but as follows: "(chiefly North American) murder (someone) (used chiefly in journalism)".

  27. dw said,

    August 25, 2013 @ 6:55 am

    I would classify "shock" in "Shock Murder Claim" as an adjective.

  28. David Marjanović said,

    August 25, 2013 @ 7:41 am

    the Diana Slay Plot Shock Murder Claim Scotland Yard probe Exclusive Author Interview

    The exclusive Dianaslayplotshockmurderclaimscotlandyardprobeauthorinterview.

    …That's why Nounpileheadlines are not done in german. :-]

  29. Chris said,

    August 26, 2013 @ 11:06 am

    I'll just chime in with an extra voice noting that, as a Brit who is totally familiar with huge noun-pileup headlines, this one strikes me as very very strange. 'Slay' just doesn't feel right, and my head insists on reading it as if it's being spoken by some sort of Incredible Hulk Princess Diana as she slays a plot (…however you'd do that).

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