UK death crash fetish?

« previous post | next post »

A few days ago, Fev at Headsup: The Blog posted about the "Hed noun pileup of the morning", namely "Texting death crash peer jailed". His link actually points to a BBC News story whose headline now reads "Peer jailed for motorway texting". All the same, Fev's larger point seems to be exactly right: "American hed dialect just doesn't do this".

A quick search on Lexis Nexis turn up a Daily Mail story from 12/2/2008 with the headline "M1 death crash peer is banned". And a search on the BBC News website turns up a story about "Safari death crash Britons", and another about "Family death crash father".

And the jounalistic dialect difference is not just the general taste for big noun-compound pile-ups suggested by Geoff Pullum's recent post on the "Dentist fear girl" — the simple two-noun phrase "death crash" seems to be strongly biased towards British Commonwealth sources. A Lexis Nexis search for "death crash" in the headlines of Major U.S. and World Publications, for a time span of the past two years, gets 798 hits, not a single one of which is in a U.S. paper. Most of the sources are British, from The Daily Mirror and the Daily Mail to the Guardian and the Times; but there's also the Belfast Telegraph, the South China Morning Post, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Christchurch (NZ) Press, the Toronto Sun, the Irish Times, the Sunday Times (of South Africa), and so on.

Apparently L-N doesn't index the BBC News site, but a "death crash" search there gets 151 hits.

Curiously, searching the Times of India, the Nation (Pakistan), and the Daily Star (Bangladesh) failed to turn up anything. I didn't try English-language papers from former colonies in Africa, the Caribbean, etc.

Returning to the U.K., "death crash" in headlines is often used to modify a following noun, such as beers, bike, biker, bride, brothers, boy, bus, car, charges, constable, cops, cyclist, dad, damages, driver, fireman, footballer, garda, goalkeeper, hubby, jet, joyrider, man, mother, motorbike, motorcyclist, mum, nurse, PC, peer, pilot, probe, schoolgirls, sisters, soldier, squaddie, survivors, teenagers, tourist, trio, trucker, vehicle, verdict, victims, witness, woman, youth.

Combinations with following noun pairs are also fairly common: death crash speed camera, death crash traffic chaos, death crash lap dancer, death crash text woman, death crash RAF pilot, death crash coach driver, … , miracle girl, soccer star, drink driver, lorry driver.

It's less common for "death crash" to be pre-modified: girl death crash, Diana death crash, tunnel death crash.

Modifications both fore and aft are even less common, but do occur. In addition to those cited above, I found one five-element compound: "Army air death crash probe".

The American headline phrase for high-kinetic-energy accidents leading to fatalities is usually the adjective-noun sequence "fatal crash". But even this phrase is apparently more common among current or recent British subjects, at least journalistically speaking.

A Lexis Nexis search for "fatal crash" in headlines during the past two years turns up 892 hits. Though there are many U.S. papers in the resulting list, a majority of the examples seem still to be from British Commonwealth sources (53 of them, vs. 12 U.S. papers). Comparing counts in specific papers supports the same conclusion: thus the Times of London has 28 instances of "death crash" in headlines and 25 of "fatal crash", vs. 0 and 17, respectively, in the New York Times. The inquest concerning Diana's accident seems to account for only a small fraction of this difference.

So pending a larger and better-controlled study (which I'll leave to someone else), it seems that stories about fatal crashes, under whatever description, simply play a larger role in British (journalistic?) culture overall. But why?


  1. David Marjanović said,

    March 1, 2009 @ 8:34 am

    Many, maybe all, of these headlines would become comprehensible if hyphens were used instead of spaces. (They aren't broader, are they?) It would be fairly evident what a dentist-fear girl is, or even a texting death-crash peer.

    [(myl 9:27 3/1/2009) I suspect that those who are used to this headline culture don't have much trouble with most examples, especially if they've also been following the stories that the headlines allude to. Even a fairly stupid frequentistic algorithm would probably get the parse right most of the time, if given training material from the appropriate epoch. ]

  2. Bill Walderman said,

    March 1, 2009 @ 10:04 am

    ". . . stories about fatal crashes, under whatever description, simply play a larger role in British journalistic culture overall. But why?"

    Could this possibly relate to different demographics of British and US newspaper readership? Could it be that US newspapers no longer reach as wide a segment of the population as British newpapers (because the majority of Americans get their news from TV and radio and few of them every actually read anything at all), and US newspapers are therefore targeted at a more elite, educated readership that shies away from sensationalism? Also, Lexis-Nexis probably doesn't pick up the large number of local papers in the US that are distributed free and largely serve as vehicles for advertising but feature stories about events of local interest such as fatal crashes.

  3. peter said,

    March 1, 2009 @ 10:24 am

    Para 3: For the record, The Irish Times is a newspaper published in Dublin, Eire, a nation not part of the British Commonwealth.

    [(myl 11:17 3/1/2009) OK, but once part of the British Empire — is there a convenient term for "places that were ruled by Britain within the past 100 years"?]

  4. Simon Cauchi said,

    March 1, 2009 @ 12:42 pm

    And it's not the "British Commonwealth" any more. It's been "The Commonwealth of Nations" since 1946.

  5. mollymooly said,

    March 1, 2009 @ 1:08 pm

    is there a convenient term for "places that were ruled by Britain within the past 100 years"

    Post-colonial? Of course, technically Ireland was never a colony, while 13 U.S. states were. And it hasn't been Eire since 1949, if ever. And implying the Belfast Telegraph is not British might upset many of its readers.

    American headlinese is definitely a different dialect; there is much greater use of commas, for one thing. Today's NYT has "Bowden, Nationals’ General Manager, Resigns"; "In Letter, Warren Buffett Concedes a Tough Year"; "George Mason University, Among First With an Emirates Branch, Is Pulling Out"; and, most exotically: "Obama Calls His Budget Sweeping, Needed Change". There are none of those " … kills 4, self" headlines today, though.

  6. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 1, 2009 @ 1:47 pm

    This reminds me of the classic David Letterman list of the Top Ten Words Used in New York Post Headlines (not guaranteed to be rigorous peer-reviewed scholarship):
    10. Co-Ed
    9. Tot
    8. Horror
    7. Straphangers
    6. Mom
    5. Weirdos
    4. Hizzoner
    3. Torso
    2. Herr Steinbrenner
    1. Slayfest/Lotto (tie)
    I would imagine that while the frequent use of particular distinctive lexical items or phrases in its headlines will tell you something about what subject matter a newspaper likes to cover, the absence of those lexical items/phrases doesn't tell you that the paper doesn't cover such stories, only that it doesn't describe them in that particular / eyecatching / noteworthy fashion.

  7. Barry Hilton said,

    March 1, 2009 @ 1:51 pm

    From Wikipaedia, a bit more grist for theorizing:

    _Crash_ is a novel by English author J. G. Ballard, first published in 1973. It is a story about car-crash sexual fetishism: its protagonists become sexually aroused by staging and participating in real car-crashes, often with real consequences. Ballard uses a cold and detached language about this automotive paraphilia which gives the novel the tone of an engineering report or a medical journal.

    It was a highly controversial novel: famously one publisher's reader returned the verdict "This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do Not Publish!"[1] The novel was made into a movie of the same name in 1996 by David Cronenberg. The Normal's 1978 song "Warm Leatherette" was also inspired by the novel.

  8. Mark Liberman said,

    March 1, 2009 @ 1:52 pm

    OK, I give up on trying to find an accurate and acceptable expression for the set of places that have been under British political control during the past century, whether or not they are now, and still seem to retain some cultural influences in their English-language press.

    Let's just say that the statistics of word sequences in British headlines appear to be quite different from those of U.S. news outlets; and some other countries seem to be closer (at least in certain respects) to the British model than to the American one; and that this may perhaps reflect more recent political connections.

  9. peter said,

    March 1, 2009 @ 2:06 pm

    "is there a convenient term for "places that were ruled by Britain within the past 100 years"?

    I think this nomenclature issue is difficult.

    Your timescale would eliminate Australia from your list, since the country has been self-governing since 1 January 1901. And indeed, technically, the country of Australia was never ruled by Britain, since its establishment coincided with the award of self-government. Its constituent colonies were also each self-governing (and arguably not ruled by Britain) for some decades before that date.

    Ditto, the country now called Zimbabwe was never ruled by Britain, except for a few months in 1979-1980. It was awarded self-government (as Southern Rhodesia) in 1923, before which it was run by the British South Africa Company (from military conquest in 1890, under a royal charter awarded the previous year). Between 1965 and 1979, the country was run illegally by a undemocratic minority of its citizens.

    The country now called Vanuatu (formerly the New Hebrides) was only half-ruled by Britain, being an Anglo-French Condominium before Independence. Similarly, only part of the territory of the present-day country of Cameroon, a member of the Commonwealth, was a British colony, France ruling the other part. The nation had been a German colony until the Treaty of Versailles following WW I divided it between France and Britain.

    And Papua New Guinea and Mozambique, both members of the Commonwealth, were never ruled by Britain. Mozambique was only ever a Portuguese colony, while Papua was a colony of Queensland and then Australia, and New Guinea a colony of Germany and, after Versailles, Australia.

  10. peter said,

    March 1, 2009 @ 2:28 pm

    Mollymooly @1.08 pm says: "technically Ireland was never a colony"

    I would dispute this statement, at least for the period between the English military conquest in the 16th century and 1782, when the Irish Parliament was finally permitted to pass laws that had not already been passed by the Parliament in London. It would seem that, both de jure and de facto, Ireland was an English colony in this period. (Not that either Parliament was representative, Catholics, Noncomformists and Presbyterians being disenfranchised, to a greater or lesser extent.)

  11. dr pepper said,

    March 1, 2009 @ 4:40 pm

    How about calling these territories "The British Footprint"?

    As for "death crash", here in the US we have "tot mom" "octomom", "hero pilot", "runaway bride", and an endless string of portmantau couples. All of these require an informed readeship to decode.

  12. Lazar said,

    March 1, 2009 @ 5:31 pm

    Just from my own observations, I've gotten the impression that these pileups are a British thing. In addition to "dentist fear girl", I remember the headline "Amy husband bribery plot landlord cleared", as well as my all-time favorite – Google it if you don't believe me – "Excrement curry wife admonished."

  13. Nathan said,

    March 1, 2009 @ 5:58 pm

    I knew Vanuatu was small, but a condominium?

  14. Nicholas Waller said,

    March 2, 2009 @ 6:43 am

    "stories about fatal crashes, under whatever description, simply play a larger role in British (journalistic?) culture overall. But why?"

    Perhaps road accident fatalities are simply slightly more newsworthy nationally in the UK, in that in population terms the death rate is around half that of the US (the UK has less than 3,000 pa, whereas the US has about 40,000).

    Still, most fatal accidents aren't newsworthy unless there is a large toll like a whole family wiped out or several teens killed at once, or a collision on a level crossing, or a motorway closed for hours, or a jailed crash text death peer.

  15. Picky said,

    March 2, 2009 @ 8:39 am

    Perhaps the closest we can get to that set of places is "those places which were once part of the Second British Empire".

    No, it's not very snappy – but what do you expect from a Briton? We and our neighbours can't even find a consistent way of referring to the various geographical and political combinations of bits of our little local archipelago, without worrying about you lot out in the colonies.

  16. P Terry hunt said,

    March 2, 2009 @ 9:56 am

    How about "erstwhile British hegemony?"

  17. Picky said,

    March 2, 2009 @ 10:30 am

    Yeah, P Terry hunt, – but that doesn't exclude the 13 colonies, which seems to be what we are trying to do, for some reason. Apparently we're trying to prove that the longer you've been out of British cultural domination, the less you are Britishly cultured. More or less.

    [(myl 14:04 3/2/2009) We're not really trying to prove anything, really, we're just noting that there are certain aspects of newpaper culture that seem to be shared by England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Canada (and in some cases, though not this one, India and Pakistan), but not the U.S. So maybe the right term is "Anglophone countries outside the U.S."?]

  18. Cameron said,

    March 2, 2009 @ 11:38 am

    Aside from the big headlines, did British newspapers use little "bus-plunge" stories from the wire services as column filler the way US papers (especially the NY Times) did in the days before computerized typesetting?

  19. Lazar said,

    March 2, 2009 @ 1:55 pm

    @Picky: So we need some term to refer to the British Empire from about Victoria to George VI?

  20. Andrew said,

    March 2, 2009 @ 2:54 pm

    Mark Liberman: I notice you don't mention Canada. Do you know what effect it would have on the results if it were considered?

    [(myl) That was an inadvertent mistake, as you can see from the list of papers in the body of the post.]

    Nathan: to me, throughout my youth, 'condominium' meant 'place like the New Hebrides'. Only in my twenties did I discover the American meaning.

  21. Picky said,

    March 2, 2009 @ 4:55 pm

    @Lazar: The Last Rites?

    @MYL: Well, I think you're right Of course there has been considerable cultural interchange between the UK and the "Dominions", and those of us guilty of journalistic pasts know that the Press in all the countries you mention (although less so Canada, perhaps, and with natural distinctions in the Sub-Continent) very much partakes of a common journalistic culture. And we who worked on British subs' desks know you could hardly move for Australian and South African colleagues.

  22. peter said,

    March 2, 2009 @ 4:55 pm

    Lazar: As earlier comments make clear, the term we are seeking has to cover not only the British Empire (ie, colonies and possessions of Britain) between Victoria and George VI, but also: the British Dominions, such as Australia and Canada; those countries run (before their Independence) by British-influenced comprador elites, such as the Republic of Ireland, Zimbabwe and Sarawak; British Protectorates, such as Lesotho and Botswana; colonies of British Dominions, such as Papua and Namibia; and other special cases, such as the joint Anglo-French colony of Vanuatu and the joint Anglo-Egyptian colony of Sudan.

  23. dr pepper said,

    March 2, 2009 @ 6:41 pm

    Perhaps we should start form the other end. The term we are looking for should not include Normandy, Aquataine, Anjou, La Rochelle or Calais.

  24. mollymooly said,

    March 2, 2009 @ 7:01 pm

    The Anglosphere is divided into two parts: the Neighborhood and the Neighbourhood.

  25. peter said,

    March 3, 2009 @ 8:36 am

    This division of the anglosphere is not crisp, mollymooly. The Australian Labor Party has spelt its name in the US fashion since before the First World War, despite Australians normally using the British spelling for words containing the letters "o-u-r", and even spelling the word "labour" as "labour" when not referring to the political party.

  26. Eddy said,

    March 3, 2009 @ 8:00 pm

    Britophone countries, perhaps?

  27. Ken Brown said,

    March 4, 2009 @ 1:39 pm

    There is no simple word for what you are looking for. Why should there be? Its what evolutionary biologists call a "paraphyletic" group (or they do when they aren't spouting nonsense about William the Conqueror and cavemen). Like "reptiles", a group whose usual definition excludes birds but includes crocodiles, even though birds and
    crocodiles are more closely related to each other than either is to any other non-extinct group

    Its not a separate branch of the tree of language (or even of the tree of empire). It is a branch with one of the largest twigs removed. It is only definable by what we choose not to include in it.

    mollymooly said: "American headlinese is definitely a different dialect; there is much greater use of commas, for one thing. Today's NYT has: …"

    Maybe Americans just like wordier headlines. Maybe they have more paper to fill up with words. After all, everything else is said to be bigger over there.

    Translating from US to UK headlinese your examples might be:

    "Bowden, Nationals’ General Manager, Resigns" -> "Nat's drop-kick Bowden"
    "In Letter, Warren Buffett Concedes a Tough Year" -> "Warren Buffett: worst year since '65"
    "George Mason University, Among First With an Emirates Branch, Is Pulling Out" -> "GMU shuts up shop in Gulf "
    "Obama Calls His Budget Sweeping, Needed Change" -> "Obama budget: change is gotta come"

  28. Ginger Yellow said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 11:20 am

    As a British based but US born journo, I find the transatlantic differences in headline style fascinating. With reference to your previous post, there is absolutely a systematic difference in culture, I can't really speculate intelligently on why fatal crashes are more headline worthy on this side of the pond, but I think I can shed some light on the noun pile-ups.

    As evidenced by the "Murder Plot Husband Trial Verdict" example given at the Heads Up blog, local papers in the UK are often sold at stands which display a teaser headline each day (in some cases changing throughout the day if there are multiple editions). The point of these headlines is to give enough information to ensure a purchase, but not enough to give away the whole story. They tell you that an event happened, but not how it turned out. So rather than "Murder Plot Husband Jailed", you get "Murder Plot Husband Trial Verdict".

    Now that's obviously not the only reason for it – you get more noun pile-ups inside the papers as well. In my opinion that's because British news journalism generally has a culture of "punchy", attention grabbing writing, premised on the idea that you lose 95% of your readers after the first paragraph. It's driven mainly by the tabloids, but is by no means exclusive to them. This doesn't seem to apply to most US news writing, which uses more leisurely prose and seems to assume that most readers will follow you through to paragraph 12. Hence the US practice of starting lots of stories on the front page to be continued on page 13 is anathema in the UK. You still get stories that bleed from the front page, but they go to page 2 or 3, and there are a handful at best.

    This punchiness is exacerbated in headlines, which have an idiom all their own. The NYT/WSJ style of lengthy headlines with multiple clauses is completely alien to British newspapers, where brevity is paramount, largely for space reasons, but partly so readers don't lose interest halfway through the headline.

    Another important difference, which often baffles US readers in my experience, is the use of quotation marks. UK papers are quite liberal with them, and are perfectly happy to use them in headlines to give the gist of what someone said, even if the quoted words themselves were never used. It's also used to convey that some controversial part of the story was alleged in court or at an official hearing, as reporting those comments is protected from libel suits (an ever-present threat in the UK). I suspect, though I have no proof, that the former practice evolved out of the latter.

  29. Netzartikel II « Real Virtuality said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 8:36 am

    […] weil im Artikel nicht der Ort für ausführliche Quellenangaben war, ein virtueller Shout-Out ans Language Log (und zwar gleich dreimal) und an […]

  30. brotzel said,

    May 19, 2009 @ 4:21 pm

    @ Ginger Yellow

    I think your newsstand explanation is spot on. When I worked on a local paper in the south of England these bits of copy were taken so seriously as to be written by the editor himself (a whole series of variations were written, tailored to appeal to different geographical areas covered by the readership.) Deciphering the latest newsstand pile-up header – "Satanic virgin pizza death riddle" or whatever – wass acually the beginning of your interaction with the paper, making it a sort of detached ambient front page that drew you in from across the street .

RSS feed for comments on this post