Headline abuse of the month

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From this tweet:

Stan Carey, who sent it in, commented

It could be a typo, but my guess is that it's a distant compound, as Arnold Zwicky calls them, like "canoe wife" and "shark widow".

For an in-depth study of such things, see Geoff Pullum's post "Canoe wives and unnatural semantic relations", 8/4/2008, and Stan Carey, "'Smuggle plot tomatoes' and other distant compounds", 6/27/2012.

There are plenty of such compounds in general use, but UK headline writers have a special affinity for them, often as part of spectacular noun piles. A small sample of posts documenting them:

"UK death crash fetish?", 3/1/2009
"Brit noun pile heds quizzed", 3/5/2009
"Headline noun pile length contest entry", 4/18/2010
"Lightning strike crash blossom", 2/27/2011
"BBC Brit head noun pile win", 5/18/2011
"Eight word BBC headline noun pile construction", 5/31/2011
"Coin change 'skin problem fear' hed noun pile puzzle", 4/21/2012
"Fish foot spa virus bombshell",  9/10/2012
"Noun pile for the ages", 1/14/2013
"West Croydon Tram Race", 7/2/2013
"The New York Post goes verbless", 8/19/2013
"Today's headline harvest", 12/9/2014
"Jones and Palin on noun-pile headlines", 8/14/2016
"Noun pile of the week", 12/14/2016




  1. Stan Carey said,

    March 1, 2017 @ 7:51 am

    The online version of the Times' story has sensibly added a "d".

  2. Phil Woodford said,

    March 1, 2017 @ 8:13 am

    In recent years, the practice of adding country names into the list has become intensely irritating. Rather than 'Japanese' as a natural adjective, for example, you get 'Japan'.


  3. Bruce said,

    March 1, 2017 @ 8:57 am

    h/t Stan Carey.
    The real culprit seems to be editorial policy so save every possible character in a headline at the possible cost of clarity (or accuracy).

    @Phil Woodford
    JAPAN MAN = Japanese citizen, or resident, who might for all we know be Filipino or Korean.

  4. FM said,

    March 1, 2017 @ 9:09 am

    Near the classroom where I teach, there's a sign advertising "mobility-impaired fire procedures" — a double distant compound!

  5. Jenny Chu said,

    March 1, 2017 @ 9:15 am

    It's not only countries, but states/provinces/cities: that's where the whole Florida Man meme comes from.

  6. Ben Zimmer said,

    March 1, 2017 @ 9:33 am

    Reminiscent of the classic crash blossom (so classic it served as the title of an anthology of ambiguous headlinese published by the Columbia Journalism Review in 1980), "Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim."

  7. Phil Woodford said,

    March 1, 2017 @ 9:44 am

    @Ben That opens up a whole other can on worms about the use of hyphens in compound adjectives. Man eating alligator caught.

  8. Zeppelin said,

    March 1, 2017 @ 11:38 am

    All this confusion (…well, a lot of it) could be avoided with no added expenditure of headline space if people would just hyphenate their compounds! What's wrong with "Squad Helps Dog-Bite-Victim"?

  9. RP said,

    March 1, 2017 @ 1:04 pm

    "Dog-Bite Victim" is fine. No need for a second hyphen.

    In the original headline, if they wanted to keep the strange noun compound, they could still have avoided ambiguity by using "aid" instead of "help".

  10. Gregory Kusnick said,

    March 1, 2017 @ 3:18 pm

    The canoe wife story begs to be summarized as "A man, a plan, a canoe — Panama!"

  11. Zeppelin said,

    March 1, 2017 @ 3:40 pm

    RP: Well, in my ideal world where hyphenation of compound nouns becomes universal in English I'd prefer the hyphen to be consistent, and not disappear just because the compound noun happens to contain a sub-compound.

  12. philip said,

    March 2, 2017 @ 5:06 am

    As an Irishman, I never trusted the English Royal family too much.

  13. richardelguru said,

    March 2, 2017 @ 6:44 am

    First reading, I voiced that 's'.

  14. Ralph Hickok said,

    March 2, 2017 @ 7:30 am

    Your comment puzzles me a bit. Would you write "robbery-victim" rather than "robbery victim"? I really see no need for a hyphen before victim in any case.

  15. Jen said,

    March 3, 2017 @ 6:07 am

    Otherwise how do we distinguish between a dog-bite victim and a dog bite-victim? ;)

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