Archive for Headlinese

Difficult tongues

Johnson, in the Economist (5/7/21), has an enjoyable article:  "Some languages are harder to learn than others — but not for the obvious reasons".

Here's the first part of the article:

When considering which foreign languages to study, some people shy away from those that use a different alphabet. Those random-looking squiggles seem to symbolise the impenetrability of the language, the difficulty of the task ahead.

So it can be surprising to hear devotees of Russian say the alphabet is the easiest part of the job. The Cyrillic script, like the Roman one, has its origins in the Greek alphabet. As a result, some letters look the same and are used near identically. Others look the same but have different pronunciations, like the p in Cyrillic, which stands for an r-sound. For Russian, that cuts the task down to only about 20 entirely new characters. These can comfortably be learned in a week, and soon mastered to the point that they present little trouble. An alphabet, in other words, is just an alphabet. A few tricks aside (such as the occasional omission of vowels), other versions do what the Roman one does: represent sounds.

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Headline writers, crash blossom victims need your help

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Spree trails ruin

From BobW:

"Saw this and immediately thought of Language Log. Whatever are they doing with all those spree trails?":

"With Deutsche Bank’s help, an oligarch’s buying spree trails ruin across the US heartland

Secret transactions, lost jobs, worker injuries, gutted buildings, unpaid bills: Ihor Kolomoisky’s untold American legacy"

By Michael Sallah and

I think that most people encountering this string of oddly concatenated words would stop and do a double take as they try to make sense of it:  "oligarch’s buying spree trails ruin".  With my eyeballs whirling around in my head, I thought:  whatever are they trying to say?  But then I calmed down and recollected that the hardest word, "spree", is one that I had myself used in a Yuletide greeting in 2013.  With "spree" (a sudden outburst of activity) nailed down in the center, the other words fell into place.

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Headline failure of the week

"Female snipers in challenging filed operation"

Photo essay in China Military (8/30/20).

Below are the captions for the five photographs in the essay.  The scary, creepy, bizarre photographs are omitted in this post, but may be seen at this link, where you can also see the headline cited above.

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Headline ambiguity of the week

This one depends on word-sense ambiguity rather than on the structural and part-of-speech issues in the ambiguous headlines we've called crash blossoms. "After 9 months, women’s body to get new head", Times of India 8/26/2020:

Nine months after being headless and non-functional, the Goa State Commission for Women is set to get a new chairperson. Minister for women and child development Vishwajit Rane on Tuesday said that a formal notification is being moved to appoint Vidya Gaude to the post.

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Eight-noun headline pile

Or is it five nouns, a verb, and two more nouns? "Napa wildfire LNU Lightning Complex Gamble Hennessey Fire – August 2020", SFGate 8/18/2020.

"Napa" is the county; "wildfire" is obvious; "LNU" turns out to stand for "Lake-Napa-Unit" but the initialism is obviously a thing even if we don't know what it means; "Lightning" is what started all the fires recently in California; "Complex" might be the head of a phrase "LNU Lightning Complex" (and that turns out to be right); "Hennessey" is another proper name.

But "Gamble" puzzled me. Is it another place name, or a description of a fire-fighting tactic, or what? And what's the structure of the sequence "Napa wildfire LNU Lightning Complex Gamble Hennessey Fire"?

The story is just a series of captioned slides, in which "Gamble" doesn't occur. So that didn't help.

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Learning wild to verb

David Denison writes:

This ludicrous headline in my Feedly feed caught my eye just now: "Learning wild to swim with confidence".

The actual story in The Guardian revealed an alternative version, usable but (to my ears) still in over-anxious thrall to the don't-split-infinitives mantra: "Learning to swim wild with confidence".

I think I'd have naturally said "Learning to wild swim with confidence", though with some hesitation in writing as to whether to hyphenate wild-swim.

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Garden path of the week

This headline puzzled me:

I interpreted it as

Doctors are showing a buried CDC report to top White House officials

And I wondered, what was that report? and why did the CDC bury it? And who are the doctors digging it up?

What the headline actually meant, of course, was

Documents show that top White House officials buried a CDC report

which makes much more sense in the current environment.

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Scope ambiguity of the week

A recent NYT headline seems like the premise for a particularly dark dystopian movie: Emily Oster, "Only Children Are Not Doomed", NYT 4/27/2020. A sort of cross between 12 Monkeys and Lord of the Flies? No:

The coronavirus pandemic has created a lot of confusion, but it also may bring into focus a question many parents (or expectant parents) ask: What is the right number of kids for my family? Quarantine or not, having siblings shapes one’s experiences and development. On balance, is this for good or for ill? […]

Overall, when it comes to what economists call success, having siblings simply does not seem to matter.

But what about the awkward only child? The data has largely rejected that idea for decades. One 1987 review article, which summaries 140 studies, found some evidence of more “academic motivation” among only children, but no differences on personality traits like extroversion. In other words, although you might expect a built-in playmate makes a kid more social, the data doesn’t bear that out.

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Cats and dogs and garden paths

From the Sydney Morning Herald:

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"Sondland implicates Trump, says Pence"?

This headline sent me down the garden path for a couple of seconds:

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-ant, -ent, whatever

This Washington Post item confused me for a few seconds:

I first interpreted the headline as "Donald Trump is confident that Roger Stone is guilty on all counts, and" (whoops) "he (=Trump) faces up to 50 years in prison"?

I was sent down this particular garden path by the recent flurry of news stories about the president throwing various supporters under the metaphorical bus. But the whole -ant v. -ent mess didn't help.

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House murders mother

British headline-syntax example of the week: "Sheffield deaths: House murders accused mother in court", BBC News 5/27/2019.

The link was sent in by H. Kepponen, who notes that

the story is not about a domestic residence killing a woman inside a courtroom with malice aforethought, but about a mother who has been charged with murdering two of her children in a house … and who was brought to court today.

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