Brit noun pile heds quizzed

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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.]


  1. Jasper Milvain said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 8:56 am

    Headline-writing is for the most part a craft tradition, with approved tricks and acceptable forms passed down from one copy-editor to another (in the US) or one subeditor to another (in the UK). So slightly divergent national styles aren't all that surprising.

    An example the other way: you will very rarely see the comma-for-and convention of American headline writing, as parodied by the Onion here and in about every fourth story, in a British paper. (Since the Onion became popular over here, it has started to crop up occasionally – enough that the "headlines" entry in the Guardian style guide now urges subs there to "resist the temptation".)

    On the other hand, if you want a reason for the development of the noun pile-up, it might be best to look at the relative dominance of small-paged, big-headlined tabloid papers in Britain.

    Most of Britain's regional press is tabloid-formatted, with designs styled after the Mail or the Sun; ideas from the tabloids circulate among the broadsheets, along with staff. Shouty tabloids require more radical methods of compression than an American city paper keeping its advertising monopoly through long-headlined broadsheet respectability, and pile-ups allow the insertion of a great many "key words" into a very small slot.

    Evidence for the tabloid theory: the local news page of the NY Post site, drawn from pages where similar space pressures apply, offers the pile-ups "ROCKY DRUG LAWS", "CHIMP MAUL" and "'HUBBY SLAY' DOC". The quotation marks on 'HUBBY SLAY' indicate that the doc is still on trial accused of the hubby slay, not that readers need help with the formulation.

  2. Hieronymous Cowherd said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 8:58 am

    Should that not be "Brit noun pileup headlines quiz"?

    [(myl) Well, I considered "Brit noun pile heds quizzed", but lost my nerve at the last minute. …OK, I just manned up and changed it (from the original "Brit noun pileup headlines questioned"). ]

  3. David Barnes said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 9:08 am

    There's been a game going around recently to spot the superheroes hidden in British headlines:

    Death Blast Girl
    Radioactive Teacher
    Fling Teacher
    Black Hole Twins

    … and so on. They're a strange construction. We'd only use them in conversation if we were alluding to tabloid-style headlines.

    Today's Daily Mail has the most racy (not most racist) headline I've ever seen it use. Underneath a 1964 photo of Mick Jagger walking around in red Speedos: The Strolling Bone.

  4. Cecily said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 9:15 am

    "I believe that these headlines are usually clear enough to those who are used to them"

    Well, at the second attempt, but that's not really good enough. I often have to read them twice to work out what they're on about, and even then you sometimes need to be familiar with the story to work it out.

  5. Cecily said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 9:17 am

    @ Jasper "if you want a reason for the development of the noun pile-up, it might be best to look at the relative dominance of small-paged, big-headlined tabloid papers in Britain"

    And also the popularity of RSS feeds, both on laptops, but especially mobile devices with tiny screens – but then I suppose that applies just as much to the US, so maybe isn't much of an explanation.

  6. Jasper Milvain said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 9:19 am

    More US tabloid compounds:

    – The New York Daily News seems slightly less keen on compounds, but its site's front page yields up a "Chimp maul vic" and an "Accused perv rabbi" – who's taking part in a "molest trial", according to the local page.

    – The Boston Herald, on its site's first three pages of local headlines, has a "baby assault", a "party shooting", a "bridge toll suggestion", "'Devastating' Boston cop layoffs", and a "baby miracle" (all just about within the limits of normal English prose) and an "alleged restaurant tooth scam" (not, I'd say).

  7. Jasper Milvain said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 9:26 am

    A 1965 literary parody of this kind of thing: Unit Headline Language, developed for a computer-generated tabloid in Michael Frayn's novel The Tin Men.

  8. Brett said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 9:28 am

    I think one factor in the development of these nouns pileups may be conventions on the use of proper names in headlines. It seems that in America, to following these kinds of ongoing news stories, we are expected to learn the names of the principal characters, and these are used in the headlines. Most of the noun pileups seem to be ways of identifying people involved in unusual circumstances without explicitly naming them.

    Transforming a couple examples from American to British style, the Menendez brothers might be "parents' shotgun slaying brothers" and Casey Anthony, "unreported missing tot mum."

  9. John Cowan said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 9:30 am

    I think the difficulty (to use no more negative term) with the British headlines is twofold. One is syntactic, and is about grouping ambiguity: how do we group pedestrian death driver? — presumably (pedestrian death) driver, but one hesitates for a moment before settling on this interpretation. The other is semantic, and is about excessive disconnection between the two parts of a noun-noun compound — the relation that connects them is too complex and unusual for a nonce compound. We cannot love them cuz their leaps too big.

    In particular, row doctor means 'doctor best known for being involved in a row', and this is a much more complicated connection than is found in, say, business empire '[figurative] empire composed of businesses'. Sometimes we can't immediately see the connection of an ad hoc or unfamiliar compound: in NASA-speak, the term mission suitability means 'suitability [of something] for the [given] mission', rather than 'suitability of the mission [itself]' — but again, both these connections are rather simple.

    English does have some frozen compounds with equally peculiar connections, like milk tooth 'a tooth one gets during the human-milk-drinking stage of life', a connection practically inconceivable in any other noun-noun compound. (My grandson, poor little fella, is cutting his fifth milk tooth at present; so sad and sorrowful is he, my heart aches for him — but I also note the semantic anomaly of cut teeth, when in sober fact it is the gums that are cut by the teeth.)

    As for headlines, the modern variety, which are actual sentences (possibly with an omitted copula) don't consistently appear until the 1890s, and first in the U.S. Before that, newspapers usually had not headlines but captions, NPs that labeled the story rather than giving its essence. Some of these, like "The War", were often repeated every day. However, an American newspaper did produce an impeccable modern headline as long ago as 1783, when its banner announced: CORNWALLIS TAKEN.

  10. Mr Punch said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 9:36 am

    Two points:

    1) Largely because of Rupert Murdoch, who imported journalists from his Australian and British properties, there has been a direct influence of practices in these countries on American tabloid newspapers.

    2) The headlines appear to be aimed at regular readers who have been following the stories and understand the references. In some cases, the papers may be trying to "own" the stories. I suspect that this may be because British print journalism is distinguished by fierce competition among national papers, whereas in the US local monopolies or near-monopolies now dominate.

  11. Lane said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 9:40 am

    I do find American tabloids (the New York Post and NY Daily News, the Boston Herald, and their like) do this a bit, though it's not as hard to decode as British headlines to me. But I just wanted to take the opportunity to mention one fave,


    This was before I knew that the Post and News also use a slang of their own – "slay" as a noun for "murder", "nabe" for "neighborhood" and so on. They're always shorter (so you can still use 120 point type). So the article was calling for the arrest of the landlord involved in an arson that killed a girl. Interesting is that TORCH isn't really shorter than ARSON.

    My other favorite, from about three years ago, satisfied every dopamine receptor of the New York Post reader in four quick hits:


    Sadly no longer found online with that headline.

  12. Jasper Milvain said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 9:41 am

    @Brett: after a certain point, British tabloids expect you to recognise such people by first names or nicknames, but these are themselves then used in compounds. So Amanda Cox – an American student accused of having murdered a British student, Meredith Kircher, in Italy – is now known to headline-writers as "Foxy Knoxy" (I can no longer remember exactly why); but when she first entered the story, she was identified on billboards as "Meredith flatmate".

  13. Andrew said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 9:47 am

    Actually, I notice that the Onion article to which Jasper Milvain links does contain a parallel construction, 'Area Man'. meaning, I take it, man who lives in this area. This seems to be a set form in American headlines; it isn't used in British headlines (though similar forms, like 'City Man', might be). Do Americans refer to area men in ordinary speech, or is it a distinctively headline form?

    [(myl) I've never heard anyone use that phrase in the course of ordinary conversation, though it's very familiar from headline-ese. ]

  14. Alex B said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 9:49 am

    I agree that the difficulty is that the editors just seize on whatever element they think is the most distinctive, and use it as a modifier, regardless of the semantic relationship between the modifier and the head noun.

    So you get another of my favourites 'inflatable deaths'

  15. Terry Collmann said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 10:00 am

    David Barnes – the word "bone" does not have the penile connotations in British English that it does in American English, so the British readers of that Daily Mail headline would have taken the reference perfectly innocently to be about Jagger's skinniness, just as most British readers would have seen no sexual connotations in a headline from a local newspaper in Hertfordshire 30 years ago about a street robbery in which a woman had jewellery grabbed from her finger, "Ring is lost in snatch".

    Noun pile-up headlines go back to at least 1970 in British newspapers, and one of the most famous was in the Evening Standard of July 18 that year, "Atom heart mother named", which inspired the title of a Pink Floyd album.

  16. John said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 10:11 am

    Not a headline, but my (UK) hometown's local newspaper the Worcester Evening News once enticed me to buy a copy purely on the strength of the newspaper poster:


  17. Cecily said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 10:18 am

    @ Terry "the word "bone" does not have the penile connotations in British English that it does in American English, so the British readers of that Daily Mail headline would have taken the reference perfectly innocently to be about Jagger's skinniness"

    I don't know where you hail from, but in my bit of SE England, amongst under 40s (and some older), "bone" is widely known to have "penile connotations". If it was a reference to Jagger's skinniness, the headline would surely have been plural, "The Strolling Bones"?

  18. Nicholas Waller said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 10:27 am

    @ Jasper Milvain (is that something to do with Ed Reardon's Week?) – the sex death claim student is Knox, not Cox, so Foxy Knoxy (she's good-looking) is not much of a stretch for Britain's Finest. Presumably on grounds of taste – unlikely as it seems – she was not dubbed Foxy while the murdered girl's body was still warm.

  19. David Eddyshaw said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 10:39 am

    Impossible surely to trump Headsup's:

    Pregnant frying pan attack teen surrenders

  20. MattF said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 10:58 am

    Maybe the Brit tabloid heds are the non-U version of the cryptic puzzles published in the broadsheets… Hed Puzzle Solver Guilty, wot?

  21. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 11:18 am

    This may well be the case with journalism even beyond tabloid headlines, but the enjoyment of the wordplay in this distinctive literary genre can be impaired somewhat if you know any of the actual human beings involved. At least that was my reaction a few years ago when the fatal shooting (by her daughter's nogoodnik ex-boyfriend) of a woman who worked as a nanny for some children on our block was headlined by one of NYC tabs as something like BERSERK BRONX (or just BX?) BEAU BLOODBATH.

  22. Steve said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 12:52 pm

    I'm sure that many, if not all, of the suggestions made here play their part, but perhaps too there is an advantage in the headline being somewhat ambiguous or opaque, in that it encourages people to read the story to find out what it's all about, and in the case of headlines on the front page, to buy the newspaper.

  23. Lazar said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 1:56 pm

    As I noted in the other thread, my favorite British headline will always be "Excrement curry wife admonished." It's not the longest one, just the awesomest.

  24. Liz said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 4:10 pm

    There is of course the immortal
    "Headless Torso in Topless Bar"

  25. Irene said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 4:23 pm

    Steve said: perhaps too there is an advantage in the headline being somewhat ambiguous or opaque, in that it encourages people to read the story to find out what it's all about, and in the case of headlines on the front page, to buy the newspaper.

    I agree with Steve's assessment. The headlines are intentionally titillating but vague. But the accompanying articles very rarely deliver on the promise, which is why I do not waste my time on them.

    Also, in the US I never see row used as a noun. I only ever see the word used as a verb as in to row a boat. So, the frequent British headlines that use row, the noun, confound me at first, especially when a rhyme is involved. How now brown row (verb)? Huh?

  26. Lazar said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 4:29 pm

    @Irene: I'm familiar with that usage from watching British shows, because they usually talk about couples having a row, rather than having a fight.

  27. Jo said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 5:04 pm

    Re whether the Daily Mail's "Strolling Bone" caption was meant to have sexual connotations, if you look at the photo they applied it to, I think it's pretty clear they are referring to the contents of Jagger's swimming trunks.

  28. jfruh said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 5:12 pm

    My personal fave, from the BBC site several years ago:

    Railway death girl rape 'trigger'

    I loved it so much that I never clicked through on the headline in my RSS reader. I just wanted it to exist forever in my mind as is, without any context to ruin it.

  29. Tim said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 7:02 pm

    I wonder if, in some cases, they up the number of nouns just to see if they can. Like "kid porn shame councillor". Why not just "kid porn councillor"? Is there another councillor known to be involved in kid porn who has not been shamed?

  30. mollymooly said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 7:07 pm

    According to commenter Adam (and who am I to argue with him?) "They [the Daily Mail] pull out that Strolling Bone line every time there’s a story about the Stones"

    UK tabloid headline writer short word sample list: laud, slam, vice, beast, agony, shame, tot, probe, brave, pal, op, and my favourite: mum-to-be.

  31. Jonathan Cohen said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 8:38 pm

    My favorite NY Post headline, though not a pileup:


  32. joseph palmer said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 9:19 pm

    I feel pretty sure, like some other Brits here, that British people are no more likely to comprehend "dancing black hole twins spotted" than anyone else, without having seen the story before. Often they will be new to such a story, and as is sometimes the case, a more conservative use of language (and a "prescriptive" policy advocating it) would communicate the message more reliably. However it wouldn't look so punchy and fun, and British papers aspire to be fun much more than their transatlantic counterparts. Even the intellectual ones.

  33. Canadian formerly in Britain said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 11:04 pm

    When I lived in the UK in 1999-2000, I found one headline initially incomprehensible: "Squad blitz on fly tippers." None of my North American friends could figure out what it meant. (The Canadian equivalent might be "Brass crack down on illegal dumpers."

    In my experience, UK headlines are also far more likely to contain nouns expressing some kind of dire situation, such as "horror" or "terror" — e.g. "Girl elevator horror!" vs. "Girl trapped in elevator for 3 hours." The result: even relatively respectable British publications' headlines resemble tabloid hyperbole to my Canadian eyes.

  34. Coby Lubliner said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 1:31 am

    How's this (from Salon): First lady shoulders scandal by Tracy Clark-Flory.

  35. dan said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 2:34 am

    I love some of the ones above. But my all-time fave is from the Daily Mirror in September 2007:


    That took some decoding.

  36. mollymooly said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 2:42 am

    OTOH, FREDDIE STARR ATE MY HAMSTER means exactly what it says.

  37. OxfordSlacker said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 7:28 am

    On a related note, a friend of mine ( collects headlines that appear to be made up entirely of nouns. He has named them "Straw Trumpets" after the headline which inspired this habit: 'Straw trumpets workplace tinsel'. Others include:
    Hercules transfer twins 'stable'
    Baby television death accidental
    Children challenge soul star will
    Baby death sparks service review
    Treasure still tops US box office

  38. stormboy said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 8:51 am

    If we're all giving examples… This one from last night's 'London Lite' threw me until I read the story:

    Sienna label's 'raucous' party angers neighbours

    I kept reading it as 'Sienna labels…' but it still didn't make sense – it was referring to the raucous launch party for Sienna Miller's fashion label during London Fashion Week.

  39. Alex B said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 10:28 am

    "Children challenge soul star will"

    Yoda quote must be that

  40. kenny v said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 3:06 pm

    As an American, I find these constructions to be largely opaque. It takes me quite a while to make heads or tails of them. This would be completely ungrammatical in an American newspaper.

  41. Killer said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 4:08 pm

    @Irene, @Lazar: As a child (in the USA), I was confused by the word "row" when it appeared (frequently) in the "Andy Capp" comic strip. After awhile, I got used to the word in context, but it was years before I became aware of the proper pronunciation.

  42. John said,

    March 9, 2009 @ 7:07 pm

    I found this one on the BBC website to be particularly hard for me as an American to make sense of. I guessed at the meaning before reading the article and ended up guessing the opposite of what it meant.
    "Oily fish dementia boosts queried"

  43. Back to front « Dadge said,

    March 9, 2009 @ 7:24 pm

    […] to front There's been some discussion lately about British headline-writing, and the place that most webusers come into contact with it is at […]

  44. codeman38 said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 2:08 pm

    Not a case of noun pile-up, but definitely approaching a Straw Trumpet, was this USA Today headline from last year's election season:

    "Obama's ad buys dwarf TV presence of McCain"

    That one took me a few readings before I realized it didn't have anything to do with little people starring in political ads.

  45. Simon Cauchi said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 7:29 pm

    Not a headline, but how's this for a noun pile-up:

    "Profit Distribution Plan share buy back offer acceptance notice"

  46. Alex said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 8:39 am

    I used aspects of the discussion here and at Headsup for writing a column in the media journal where I work. Thank you, Language Log. (It's in German)

  47. Netzartikel II « Real Virtuality said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 8:56 am

    […] für ausführliche Quellenangaben war, ein virtueller Shout-Out ans Language Log (und zwar gleich dreimal) und an Headsup. Verfasst von realvirtuality Abgelegt in Internet, Medien Verschlagwortet mit : […]

  48. News website headline noun pile-up amusement « Sentence first said,

    June 6, 2010 @ 3:10 pm

    […] The press on this side of the Atlantic indulge in headline noun pile-ups much more than their American counterparts. Headsup: the blog, which monitors these matters closely, observed that “British hed writers can pull an attributive noun across a lot more barriers than we can [in the U.S.]”, and notes an exception in the Rupert-Murdoch-owned, which offers such far-out formulations as "Pregnant frying pan attack teen surrenders". Language Log considers the transatlantic difference a sociological and linguistic puzzle. […]

  49. Fenambulist said,

    June 6, 2010 @ 5:24 pm

    "Slough sausage choke baby death woman jailed"

    (BBC News, 4 June 2010)


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