Thinnernymity

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Andy Bodle, "Sub ire as hacks slash word length: getting the skinny on thinnernyms", The Guardian 12/4/2014 ("Headlinese is a useful little language – but it shouldn't creep into the rest of the story. If front pages baffle you, read on for my jargon-busting thinnernymicon"):

A stranger arriving in this land, English diploma clutched tightly, might be forgiven, on catching sight of a newspaper stand, for throwing up her hands and turning homewards. "Kendra hubby's rage at 'sex pest' Jake". "Panic room bed tax victim taken to court". "Ox aye the Roo!"

The orthography is recognisably English, but the order is all wrong; the tenses work differently, and some of the words – well, they're in the dictionary, but that's about the only place you'll find them. This is because headlines don't use English at all, but a language all their own.

Bodle provides a syntactic sketch, covering points such as:

  • Articles and possessive pronouns are practically nonexistent
  • All forms of the verb "to be" are similarly superfluous
  • The past tense is replaced by the more concise present simple
  • The future tense, meanwhile, is rendered by the infinitive
  • Noun modifiers are rampant
  • Prepositions are often coopted to do the work of verbs

And he ends with "The Thinnernymicon", with entries like

Dub = describe as, label, nickname
Eye = consider, contemplate
Face = is in line for; faces the prospect of; must prepare for; is threatened with

For some amusing examples of the results, see the posts archived under our "crash blossoms" category — and John McIntyre's original crash blossom post.



18 Comments

  1. Lazar said,

    December 30, 2014 @ 9:36 am

    If he doesn't hear people use dub, then he musn't know any anime fans. To be fair though, it's a different usage from the older one.

    Also, the usage of call out that he objects to doesn't strike me as obscure or headlinistic at all, but rather as a reasonably popular, though possibly newish, informal expression.

  2. Mike said,

    December 30, 2014 @ 9:45 am

    There's also the use of "in" as an all-encompassing relational particle as in "X in Y", where Y are the circumstances of X.

    Basically, it's e-prime translated into Classical Chinese and back (word for word) into English.

  3. ThomasH said,

    December 30, 2014 @ 12:44 pm

    While clearly colorful and occasionally hilarious, "headlinese" ("Thinnernyms?) is definitely a part of the English Language and the stranger arriving in the land would do well to learn to parse it. Bodle's "syntactic sketch" and "thinnernymicon" are helpful in this regard.

  4. Y said,

    December 30, 2014 @ 1:46 pm

    Log Thumbs Up For Word Whiz Sketch.

  5. Y said,

    December 30, 2014 @ 1:53 pm

    Shorter: Log Lauds Word Whiz.

  6. Ray Girvan said,

    December 30, 2014 @ 3:41 pm

    I just had to look up "Ox aye the Roo". It concerns the role of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain ("Ox") and Wayne Rooney ("Roo") in winning a football match against the Scottish team.

  7. Dick Kennedy said,

    December 30, 2014 @ 4:02 pm

    Also, what's the deal with so many websites (such as the BBC) using the name of a country or place where it should be the adjectival form – eg:

    Syria man becomes nun

    Where they mean (and often say in the story itself), 'Syrian man'…

  8. Wendy M. Grossman said,

    December 30, 2014 @ 6:28 pm

    In his play NIGHT AND DAY Tom Stoppard talks about headlinese, although he doesn't call it that: (from memory) he calls it "Lego language" that can be snapped together. It's often been parodied in British newsroom sitcoms (granted, a small field). But it – along with similar space-saving language in the copy itself – is why Sun writers can write the Guardian but Guardian writers can't write the Sun. Personally, I think of it as density rather than thinness, but I get the idea.

    wg

  9. Cy said,

    December 31, 2014 @ 1:34 am

    Along with the general superfluousness of "be" verbs, it's fairly interesting how often the past participle form of verbs is used, without any auxiliary "have" or "be." This troubles many international students, who of course have difficulty with that participle in the first place when it DOES have helpers

  10. Michael said,

    December 31, 2014 @ 3:14 am

    STICKS NIX HICK PIX

    http://www.terramedia.co.uk/quotations/Quotes_Press.htm

  11. rob said,

    December 31, 2014 @ 4:24 am

    Another example, inexplicably omitted from the Guardian list, is blueprint.

  12. Robot Therapist said,

    December 31, 2014 @ 5:20 am

    Michael Frayn, in his 1965 novel "The Tin Men", talks about "UHL" (Unit Headline Language) and getting a computer to generate news headlines.

  13. Robot Therapist said,

    December 31, 2014 @ 5:24 am

    My own favourite headline construction is "X while Y", used to suggest a causal connection (which may or may not exist) between X and Y.

    For example (I am making these up) "Bankers eat lavish dinner while homeless sleep on the street" or "Mayor driven to work in limo while commuters left stranded".

  14. Adrian said,

    December 31, 2014 @ 6:08 pm

    Dick: because not all Syrians are Syrian. Or something like that. I know this issue exists among ethnic Hungarians in Slovakia, Romania, etc.

    As usual when this topic of UK headlinese comes up, I refer LL readers to "Keep Taking the Tabloids" by Fritz Spiegl, which has provided an excellent guide to the subject for over 30 years.

  15. Ralph Hickok said,

    January 1, 2015 @ 11:23 am

    Ever since I wrote my first headline at the age of 14, I've wondered how many newspaper readers actually understand headlinese. Maybe most of them read the story because they don't what the headline says.

  16. Dick Kennedy said,

    January 2, 2015 @ 1:34 pm

    Adrian: Yeah, I get that. But this is a recent change. And often happens where there is no possibility of that kind of confusion – eg, 'Syria Government admits to general naughtiness…'

  17. Pennywhistler said,

    January 3, 2015 @ 2:33 pm

    … and the radio news usage of "HAIL". "Lawmakers hail governor's veto" and the like. Always gives me a creepy fascistic feeling.

  18. BZ said,

    January 5, 2015 @ 3:13 pm

    Actually, future can be rendered as present too, especially when the subject signals its intent to do something. "Microsoft Buys Nokia", "Iran Invades U.S.", etc. (Actually, I think it's reserved for when something is likely to happen)

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