Noun pile of the week

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"Corpse sex kill threat prisoner gets 45 year sentence", BBC 12/14/2016.

This is a case where even after reading the story, the structure is unclear.

Is it [[[corpse sex] [kill threat]] prisoner] ?

Or [[[corpse [sex kill]] threat]] prisoner] ?

Or has the BBC decided, in this post-truth era, to go post-syntax as well?

Philip Cummings, who sent in the link, commented that

I call these ‘noun car crashes’ particularly when I have to attempt to translate them into Irish and work out the appropriate case relationships between the various nouns.

The obligatory screen shot:


  1. Christopher Barts said,

    December 14, 2016 @ 11:43 am

    Is this really hard to parse? It's obviously the first option: The person threatened to kill people ("kill threat") and have sex with their corpses ("corpse sex"), which you don't even need the image caption to figure out. The other option is utterly nonsensical by the usual rules of headline-ese. Post-syntax? Nah, headlines have a very useful syntax, well-suited to both peeving and dense information transfer!

  2. Lewis said,

    December 14, 2016 @ 12:00 pm

    Maybe "Kill & corpse sex threats prisoner gets 45 year sentence" would be slightly clearer? The BBC chose to put the more lurid threat first but I would reverse that, and change "threat" to "threats" since two were made.

  3. Adam F said,

    December 14, 2016 @ 12:24 pm

    The usual compound noun for threatening to kill someone is "death threat", not "kill threat" — maybe that's part of the reason why it's hard to make sense of this.

  4. Rodger C said,

    December 14, 2016 @ 12:25 pm

    My first thought was, "person who threatened to kill someone for exposing him as a necrophiliac." But then I'm a Yank.

  5. philip said,

    December 14, 2016 @ 12:39 pm

    My point is that it is just a mess, and a very bad headline. Also for a moment I thought the 'kill' was a verb with the wrong agreement.

    * Christopher – are you sure the word order does not give the slightest impression that the prisoner is threatening to kill corpses? I was also tickled that 'sentence' and '45' appeared in the headline, as there are about 45 things wrong with it, the first being that, as a native speaker of English, I could not understand it. I might have understood 'DIY necrophiliac prisoner gets 45 year sentence' and that is a shorter headline.

    As for translating these taismí bóthair ainmfhocal cáilithe (attributive noun car crashes) into Irish without using a sensible relative clause, I simply refuse to do it, but I am in a minority, with other Irish translators apparently under the impression that they are obliged to replicate the car crash of the English and then confuse themselves with multiple attributive nouns in the genitive case. Both French and Spanish translations of similar titles of groups or reports in the EU simply ignore the English noun pile and use dative, accusative and genitive constructions, and relative clauses if need be.

  6. Chuck Lavazzi said,

    December 14, 2016 @ 12:45 pm

    And then there's the heartwarming story of the necrophiliac who achieved his boyhood ambition by growing up to become coroner.

    (Apologies to Tom Lehrer)

    I was trying to think of how one could translate this into French but my head started to hurt. I suppose you could just create a French noun crash; it probably wouldn't be much more cryptic.

  7. Gregory Kusnick said,

    December 14, 2016 @ 12:56 pm

    I'm with Rodger. To me the more obvious interpretation was "death threats against necrophiliacs", not "death threats by a necrophiliac".

  8. Gregory Kusnick said,

    December 14, 2016 @ 12:58 pm

    …which of course is not actually what Rodger said, now that I reread it.

  9. Ken Morrison said,

    December 14, 2016 @ 1:21 pm

    He's now changed from "Corpse sex kill threat prisoner" to "Sex with corpses kill threat inmate", which is probably more confusing.

  10. philip said,

    December 14, 2016 @ 1:26 pm

    Ken – oh the power of Language Log!

  11. Chuck Lavazzi said,

    December 14, 2016 @ 1:27 pm

    "He's now changed from "Corpse sex kill threat prisoner" to "Sex with corpses kill threat inmate", which is probably more confusing." That now sounds like a story about how a necrophiliac inmate died from having sex with corpses.

  12. Michael said,

    December 14, 2016 @ 1:52 pm

    When I gazed in mute incomprehension at this headline, I thought that finally, FOR SURE, LL had found the headline that no one could possibly defend as easy to understand at first glance.
    The first commenter quickly disabused me of that error. The Universe has happily returned to normal.

  13. DWalker07 said,

    December 14, 2016 @ 2:16 pm

    ""He's now changed from "Corpse sex kill threat prisoner" to "Sex with corpses kill threat inmate", which is probably more confusing." That now sounds like a story about how a necrophiliac inmate died from having sex with corpses."

    Yes, I agree with your interpretation of the new headline. It's worse, which is an accomplishment indeed.

  14. Narmitaj said,

    December 14, 2016 @ 2:32 pm

    It's currently "Corpse sex fetish inmate gets 45 years for death threats" as of 19:31 UK time, but I guess that could change. They're probably having a ball in the news office.

  15. Cervantes said,

    December 14, 2016 @ 4:56 pm

    This is a case where even after reading the story, the structure is unclear.

    Or … This is a case where reading the story is not the better course of action!

    They're probably having a ball in the news office.

    There is that, I suppose.

  16. Mary Kuhner said,

    December 14, 2016 @ 5:08 pm

    "Corpse sex fetish inmate gets 45 years for death threats" is SO much better than the others. If you aren't allowed hyphens or the word "necrophilia", it may be about as good as you can do.

    Noun piles aside, trying to compound the person's two alleged offenses (necrophliia and death threats) into modifiers on one noun just isn't going to work for those who aren't already familiar with the case.

  17. Avinor said,

    December 14, 2016 @ 6:47 pm

    You have written about these for ages, but it only strikes me know that these British noun piles appear to have the same structure as Swedish compound words.

    corpse sex kill threat prisoner


    lik = corpse
    sex = sex
    dödshot = death threat (also a compound, but lexical)
    fånge = prisoner

    If you by mistake write this as separate words (so-called "särskrivning", a common orthographic mistake)

    lik sex dödshots fånge

    a reader will attempt to parse it as a phrase, arriving at (though the homonyms sex = six and lik = like; similar)

    like (a/the) prisoner of six death threats

    The pronunciation of the latter is clearly different.

    So perhaps this is just the poor British trying to form Scandinavian-style compounds, but with their language giving them neither the orthographic, nor the pronunciation tools for disambiguation.

  18. Gregory Kusnick said,

    December 14, 2016 @ 6:54 pm

    Like a prisoner of six death threats should be the title of a film noir thriller. I would watch that movie.

  19. Matt McIrvin said,

    December 14, 2016 @ 7:50 pm

    Whatever it means, it probably isn't good.

  20. philip said,

    December 15, 2016 @ 4:21 am

    Avinor: Good point. English has Germanic origins, but no longer has Germanic compoundnounbuildingability. The opportunities for confusion abound, but only when translating apparently; I have sought clarification from originators of English phrases like the one below and have discovered that they do not actually know what they meant by the original car crash:
    EG: Local transport regulations: does this mean, local application of(national) transport regulations, or (national) regulations concerning local transport? No one actually knows, or seems to care – but translating the car crash into Irish or French requires the translator to come down on one side or the other. English is a great language for obfuscation.

  21. Mr Punch said,

    December 15, 2016 @ 9:07 am

    The current (?) "45 years" is a big improvement; "sentence" unnecessary.

  22. melmac said,

    December 15, 2016 @ 10:02 am

    Wouldn't the structure be:
    [[corpse sex] [kill] threat]?

    The threat pertains to both (i) killing and (ii) corpse-sexing.

  23. Gabe Burns said,

    December 15, 2016 @ 11:15 am

    Melmac is spot on. "Corpse" modifies "sex", which [along with "kill"] modifies threat. [[Corpse sex] [kill threat]] would be two separate types of offense, but the prisoner only committed (or at least the article is only about) one (though he did it twice). Honestly for me the only ambiguity is between these two possible meanings. [Corpse [sex kill] threat] would never occur to me. In fact, even having it pointed, I doesn't seem like a possibility, because I can't figure out what situation that would be referring to. If I understand correctly, that would mean that both "corpse" and "sex kill" modify "threat", or possibly that "corpse" modifies "sex kill threat", though I would write that as [corpse [[sex kill] threat]]. The only reasonable interpretation I can come up with for [[sex kill] threat] is a threat to rape and murder someone, or possibly to somehow kill them with sex or during sex. Disregarding [sex kill] for a moment, [Corpse threat] seems like it could mean four things: a threat to a corpse, a threat with a corpse (in the same sense as "bomb threat") , or a very strange way of saying "death threat", or a threat from a corpse ( "BRAAAIINS"). I can't figure out how you would combine any of those with [[sex kill] threat] and get something that makes any kind of sense. You can't make a [sex kill] threat against a corpse (it's already dead), and interpreting "corpse threat" as "death threat" is redundant in the case of a "sex kill threat". Zombies want to eat you, not rape you, so that leaves the final possibility of a corpse as the instrument of a sex kill threat. That's the only one that seems remotely possible, but I can't figure out how it would work. It would have to be a very strange threat (though probably quite unsettling). Is there something else that's meant by the [Corpse [sex kill] threat] interpretation I'm just not getting?

  24. Gregory Kusnick said,

    December 15, 2016 @ 3:05 pm

    philip: "Local transport regulations" seems pretty unambiguous to me, and means regulations enacted by some local (e.g. city) agency to regulate transport within and through their jurisdiction.

    I would not use "local transport regulations" to describe a situation where local agencies are charged with enforcing national regulations (your first option), nor, outside of narrow technical contexts such as hazardous waste disposal, one in which national regulatory authorities regulate short-range transport (your second option).

  25. GeorgeW said,

    December 15, 2016 @ 3:18 pm

    Whatever the specifics may be, I am clear that this isn't someone one should have over drinks.

  26. philip said,

    December 15, 2016 @ 7:56 pm

    Gregory: Local transport regulations is not the best of examples, granted, local commuter organisations might be better?

    But that waste disposal you cite, is that dangerous methods of disposing of waste? or methods of disposing of dangerous waste? Again not a great example, but it is that kind of pattern of nouns + qualifiers (adjectives or nouns) which is rampant in English and which often needs careful deciphering when translating. I will try to come up with a better illustration in the morning.

  27. maidhc said,

    December 16, 2016 @ 5:47 am

    philip: I would think that having a genitive case might enable you to make things a bit clearer. Although in this particular example I don't see how that would work. Better to rewrite the whole thing "Prisoner who threatened murder and posthumous sex assault gets 45 years".

  28. philip said,

    December 16, 2016 @ 6:07 am

    Ar ndóigh, a mhaidhc … but only after you have worked out what the English is trying to mean.

  29. Joshua K. said,

    December 16, 2016 @ 8:55 pm

    I can sort of understand why a newspaper would use a noun-pile headline due to the limited space available in print. But this is from the BBC website. Why would an online writer use that cryptic style?

  30. j2h said,

    December 18, 2016 @ 12:40 pm

    Joshua K – my understanding is that it was originally done to fit the limited space available on the Ceefax teletext service, as the same news stories were replicated both on Ceefax and the web. But Ceefax is long dead, so I'm not sure what the constraints are now.

    I would say it's for more limited headline spots on the front page or in the "Most Popular" box on the right, but they already have separate shorter headlines for those purposes.

    So maybe it's just a house style guideline – headlines should not be longer than X characters to keep them snappy and succinct. Of course this falls apart when the length restrictions lead the headlines to be harder to parse than they otherwise would be (although Brits are probably more used to this style than other English-speakers thanks to the tabloid press)

  31. davep said,

    December 22, 2016 @ 8:48 am


    Why can't headline writers use hyphens?

    "Corpse-sex, kill-threat prisoner…"

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