Noun pile history

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From Alon Lischinsky:

In "Brit noun pile heds quizzed" (3/5/2009), you wondered when did British news media start writing headlines as long, complex noun compounds.

While I have nothing resembling a clear answer, I've just noticed that it must go back to the 1930s at least. In "The Professor's Manuscript", one of the stories published in her 1939 collection In the Teeth of the Evidence, Dorothy Sayers makes what's obviously an allusion to common practice:

Mr. Egg brought his mind back—a little unwillingly— from the headlines in his morning paper ("screen star's marriage romance plane dash"—"continent comb-out for missing financier"—"country-house mystery blaze arson suspicions"—"budget income-tax remission possibility"), and wondered who Professor Pindar might be when he was at home.

Items 1, 3 and 4 in the list are perfect examples of the sort of headline you discussed in that post. If only item 2 had been “missing financier continent comb-out”…

And surely more recent practice would have omitted the 's to yield "screen star marriage romance plane dash".

I haven't been able to locate a historical archive of British tabloids, but there must be one online somewhere, in which we could track this style to its source. Unless it started with Elizabethan handbills, or something?




  1. Ginger Yellow said,

    October 14, 2015 @ 8:21 am

    Not just tabloids, but this archive might be useful.

  2. Ginger Yellow said,

    October 14, 2015 @ 8:33 am

    As might this rather limited selection and the Daily Express archive.

  3. languagehat said,

    October 14, 2015 @ 9:33 am

    The Sayers example suggests that it might be fruitful to search novels for "headlines," though you'd have to wade through a lot of material. Interesting question!

  4. Will said,

    October 14, 2015 @ 10:30 am

  5. Will said,

    October 14, 2015 @ 12:21 pm

    Looking at that first link though, it's all regional papers, and doesn't include the Illustrated London News or the Picture Post, that might be thought of as the precursors of the modern tabloid. They're on the Gage archive linked above.

    Other than those two, the closest is probably the News of the World, which has always aimed for a mass audience. Looking at the limited selection at Ginger Yellow's link, it doesn't seem to use them in the 19th Century. It does, amusingly, have front page adverts recommending mothers give morphine to teething babies.

    So, you might be able to answer the question, "Did regional papers and illustrated papers use noun plles?" But there weren't really tabloids until the 1960s.

  6. zythophile said,

    October 14, 2015 @ 12:25 pm

    The archive Ginger Yellow points to also includes access to the tabloid Daily Mirror from 1903 to 1980, if you go in via a different route here: it will cost you around $12 for 30 days' access.

  7. KevinM said,

    October 14, 2015 @ 3:45 pm

    Today on the Daily Beast we had the old copula-dropula.
    "Olivia Wilde: Hillary Attacks Sexist"

  8. Phil Ramsden said,

    October 14, 2015 @ 5:27 pm

    Brits In Piles Agony

  9. AntC said,

    October 14, 2015 @ 6:58 pm

    It might have started in the tabloids, but my (highly subjective) impression is that amongst British newspapers, it's The Guardian that goes out of its way to concoct magnificent Headlinese. (The paper is always referred to as The Grauniad by Private Eye, as being too clever for its own sub-editors.)

    It started as a regional newspaper The Manchester Guardian, to which wikipedia attributes its typos.

  10. fev said,

    October 14, 2015 @ 8:11 pm

    US practice usually dates tabloids-as-tabloids to the earlyish 20th century and innovations like the composograph (totally, go look some up) and sneaking cameras into the execution chamber. Except for cases when an owner like Murdoch imports British editors to raise the overall tone of the product, we still haven't adopted the full-on noun pile as a regular feature, but we do the rest of tabloidism pretty well.

    I think some Grauniad subs are regular readers here, and they can speak more authoritatively than I can on British hed evolution. See also Bob Franklin's edited volume "Pulling Newspapers Apart" for some UK-centered takes on hed and design practice.

  11. fev said,

    October 14, 2015 @ 8:18 pm

    … to be fair, I should note that noun-piling shows up in the qualities and the BBC as well as the tabs. It's more a UK thing than a register thing.

  12. dw said,

    October 15, 2015 @ 12:14 am

    Am I the only person for whom the opening sentence of Mr Lischinsky's communication ("you wondered when did British news media …") is ungrammatical?

  13. richardelguru said,

    October 15, 2015 @ 5:46 am

    Phil, surely BRITS PILE AGONY

  14. Greg Malivuk said,

    October 15, 2015 @ 7:32 am

    @dw: Yeah, I noticed that as well. I always feel bad for my students who, just as they're finally getting pretty consistent with correctly ordering the words in questions, get told they're overgeneralizing that rule and now here are a bunch of sentences that *look* like they include non-inverted questions.

  15. Alon Lischinsky said,

    October 15, 2015 @ 8:05 am

    @dw: well, I'm an L2 speaker, so you can chalk it up to either poor application of the penthouse principle or poor editing. In any case, I'd have paid more attention if I'd known it'd end up in the Log :-/

  16. Ellen K. said,

    October 15, 2015 @ 9:01 am

    I have no problem with "you wondered when did British news media …". "[W]hen did British news media …" is grammatical question, and "you wondered" introduces it. If I wrote it I probably would have written "you wondered when British news media started", but it doesn't strike me as ungrammatical as written.

  17. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 15, 2015 @ 9:04 am

    Many/most distinctive features of headlinese (in its various regional dialects) can be explained by the notion that space is at an extreme premium — even more so than for journalese in general because heds are in larger type so you have fewer characters per column-inch to play with. The migration to web-based journalism may remove that constraint, with potentially serious implications for headlinese. For example, here's a current UK hed from the web edition of the Evening Standard: "Lothario? He’s not the type, say friends of llama keeper at centre of London Zoo love-triangle fracas." That's way too wordy for traditional print journalism. It ends with a pretty good noun pile, but surely in earlier times the need to save space could have resulted in something magnificent like ZOO LOVE-TRIANGLE FRACAS LLAMA-KEEPER LOTHARIO DENIAL.

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