BBC Brit head noun pile win

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Chris Dammers writes to point out a classic British headline noun pile-up on the BBC's news index page, "Sack rape row Clarke – Miliband":

This is also how it apparently went out on the BBC's news feed, and thus the same sequence showed up as a headline in various other places, e.g. here:

But the actual BBC news story has (now?) the less poetically opaque "Sack Ken Clarke over rape comments – Miliband".

Native speakers of British Headline may have more insight, but in my analysis, "Sack rape row Clarke – Miliband" should be parsed as attributing to Miliband the assertion that "rape row Clarke" should be sacked, where "rape row" is a supplementary modifier of Clarke. In other words, "Miliband says that Clarke,  involved somehow in a controversy connected somehow with rape, should be sacked."

Has anyone previously noted the syntactico-semantic similarity between British Headline English and classical Chinese poetry?


  1. Jonathan said,

    May 18, 2011 @ 8:32 am

    And on the same web page, Police launch Huhne points probe

  2. pj said,

    May 18, 2011 @ 8:49 am

    Native speaker here: "Miliband says that Clarke, involved somehow in a controversy connected somehow with rape, should be sacked" is exactly right.
    (Now, do I care enough to go and find out exactly what Ken Clarke said and form an opinion?)

  3. jfruh said,

    May 18, 2011 @ 8:56 am

    I'm not a native speaker of British headline, but I do enjoy its rhythms! I think this is the first time I've seen a phrase like "rape row" modifying a proper noun. It's typically attached to common nouns — there was a woman who drunkenly mimed fellatio on a British war memorial who was universally referred to in headlines for weeks as "sex act woman" — but hooking it to someone's *name* seems like a another step into insanity.

  4. Matt Leidholm said,

    May 18, 2011 @ 9:00 am

    The BBC, like many news organizations, creates two headlines for their online stories: a long display version for the article page and a short version for news feeds. The BBC has a very short character limit on their "short" headlines, though, seeing as they still go out on the antiquated Ceefax teletext news service. Often, their experience in writing succinct headlines is a positive, but here, journo-speak pith got in the way of understanding.

  5. Phil Jennings said,

    May 18, 2011 @ 9:02 am

    I first parsed this as to do with Clarke-Miliband, someone with a hyphenated name. I suppose were I more familiar with UK politicians, I wouldn't make this mistake. The BBC probably has the right to assume this level of education.

    My Clarke-Milibrand reading only made the rest of it more of a jumble.

  6. C Thornett said,

    May 18, 2011 @ 9:09 am

    Just for the record, it should be said that the row (angry disagreement) is about something Clarke said about reduced sentences for criminals who confess at an early stage. He used as an example a man confessing to rape. I will only say that Mr Clarke dug a hole for himself and that further remarks, far from extricating him, only excavated the hole further.

  7. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 18, 2011 @ 9:12 am

    Is Clarke now going to go through life as Rape Row Clarke (like Capability Brown), to distinguish him from Fusion Bass Clarke and Black Monolith Clarke? Though he might deserve it for all I know.

    Are there any native speakers of British Attributive Noun Pile Up Headline Dialect, or only native understanders?

    Incidentally, a hyphen in rape-row might have made decryption easier.

  8. GeorgeW said,

    May 18, 2011 @ 9:20 am

    This is completely incomprehensible to this native, English-speaking American. It includes 'sack' which can be a verb with different meanings or a noun also with different meanings. And, it includes 'row' which can be a transitive or intransitive verb with different meanings or noun with different meanings. And, then 'rape' can be a noun or verb.

  9. Ø said,

    May 18, 2011 @ 9:24 am

    I was briefly distracted by sack as in sack races and row as in death row.

  10. Ellen K. said,

    May 18, 2011 @ 9:39 am

    I initially took "sack" as a verb, as it's meant, but I was thinking I was reading it wrong and it was really part of the noun pileup. Thankfully, I read on rather than spending time contemplating that.

  11. GeorgeW said,

    May 18, 2011 @ 9:58 am

    Actually, it could be a verb pile as well. But, a statement with multiple main verbs is less likely.

  12. Paul said,

    May 18, 2011 @ 10:04 am

    Yank Blog sack Clarke rape row head noun pile up shock – latest.

    Morny Stannit!

  13. Tomasz said,

    May 18, 2011 @ 10:10 am

    I suspect that the BBC delights in deliberately creating this kind of mess.

  14. Picky said,

    May 18, 2011 @ 10:11 am

    Although from the days when London had more than one evening newspaper it was StarNewsStannit! (Morecambe & Wise notwithstanding).

    Strange how our American cousins continue to find bafflement in these headlines, which are, after all, in perfectly standard English. Which shows how for English to be perfectly standard, and for standard English to be perfect, it doesn't have to be unambiguous.

  15. Paul said,

    May 18, 2011 @ 10:23 am

    @Picky – indeed. It's strange how this "mess" or "insanity" that gets "in the way of understanding" seems perfectly fine to those of us who see this sort of thing regularly. It's the right words and in the right order – at the risk of a more obscure hint at Morecambe & Wise.

    Perhaps this is the Americans getting their own back for the British sport of unfairly blaming Americanisms for the language going to the dogs ;-)

  16. Athel Cornish-Bowden said,

    May 18, 2011 @ 10:34 am

    Michael Frayn parodied this kind of thing in his 1965 novel The Tin Men, in which introduced Unit Headline Language, and gave examples such as "Strike Threat Plea Probe Move Shock Hope Storm". The character who invented this (Goldwasser, if memory serves) was interested to see how long it needed to be to be utterly unintelligible.

  17. dw said,

    May 18, 2011 @ 10:52 am

    Strange how our American cousins continue to find bafflement in these headlines, which are, after all, in perfectly standard English

    They're in standard Brit headlinese. They're not in "perfectly standard English".

  18. Picky said,

    May 18, 2011 @ 10:55 am

    Athel: Indeed he did, although I think Goldwasser's belief was that it could be extended indefinitely.

    dw: No doubt you are right. In what sense are they not standard?

  19. Licia said,

    May 18, 2011 @ 11:05 am

    I am a non-native speaker – an Italian who spent a few years in England and Ireland – and yet I always seem to parse such headlines correctly, also when I am not fully familiar with all the references they contain. I am surprised that Americans should find them so hard to understand, surely there must be some "cultural" aspects involved?

  20. Keith M Ellis said,

    May 18, 2011 @ 11:12 am

    I am surprised that Americans should find them so hard to understand, surely there must be some "cultural" aspects involved?

    Well, anecdotally here at LL, it seems that there's some inverse correlation between being from the US and understanding these headlines. If so, there must necessarily be a cultural explanation, right? Unless this was the result of some sort of insidious genetic experiment by either a US or British secret agency and/or mad scientist.

    I'm hoping for the insidious genetic experiment explanation, myself.

  21. Picky said,

    May 18, 2011 @ 11:15 am

    No, no, no, Dr Goldwasser was certainly British and certainly mad, but he was a computer scientist.

  22. David L said,

    May 18, 2011 @ 11:17 am

    As a former Brit who hasn't lived there for almost 30 years, I have to admit that whatever facility I once had for understanding British headlines has withered almost to nothing. I find this kind of thing very hard to make sense of. It's a bit like pig Latin, I suppose, in that if you don't have the trick of it, it sounds like gobbledygook.

    I came across another terrific BBC example here: The headline reads:

    "Slough sausage choke baby death woman jailed"

    The combination of a sausage choke baby and a death woman is like something out of Bosch — and their being in Slough just adds to the horror.

  23. pj said,

    May 18, 2011 @ 11:18 am

    @Jonathan – oh, well spotted! 'Police launch Huhne points probe' is lovely, and surely even more ripe with possibilities for confusion. I only understood it because I knew something of the story it referred to, and only then after a second or two of thought; this was the first I'd heard of 'rape row Clarke' and yet I understood the headline's gist immediately.

  24. Anarcissie said,

    May 18, 2011 @ 11:33 am

    I apprehended a similarity between dense headlinese and classical Chinese poetry a long time ago, but since I don't really know Chinese except going word-by-word from a dictionary — slow plodding indeed — I thought it might be an illusion due to ignorance. It isn't?

  25. Picky said,

    May 18, 2011 @ 11:53 am

    Thus, "their being in Slough just adds to the horror" is standard English, but you need a particular cultural key to unlock it.

  26. John Cowan said,

    May 18, 2011 @ 12:12 pm

    We Yanks have had our own versions of this style, my favorite being CLUB FIGHT BLOCKS RAIL RIVER TUBE PLAN. But I think the real distinction is not grammatical but cultural: America is a low-context culture, and so over-explicit from the British point of view; Britain is a high-context culture, and so over-gnomic from the American point of view.

  27. Picky said,

    May 18, 2011 @ 12:40 pm

    The high-contextness of Britain only relative, do you think, John, or not?

  28. Pflaumbaum said,

    May 18, 2011 @ 12:43 pm

    Never realised US headlines were different. Though I think some of the British speakers are exaggerating the standardness of this one… Sack Rape Row Clarke – Miliband is quite an extreme case. When I first saw it I assumed Clarke had been involved in a rape involving a sack, and the headline was going to go on to tell us what he said about Miliband.

    @ David L – [Slough sausage baby choke] and [death woman] aren't the constituents in that headline – she's a [Slough sausage baby choke death] woman.

  29. Pflaumbaum said,

    May 18, 2011 @ 12:51 pm

    Also, it's ungrammatical for me. Partly I think it's hard to understand because choke as a noun is rare, but the real problem is that sausage and choke belong together. But they couldn't write Slough sausage choke baby death woman because choke and death also belong together. The way that works best for me is to leave death out, and put either

    Slough sausage choke baby woman


    Slough baby sausage choke woman

  30. Picky said,

    May 18, 2011 @ 12:55 pm

    Not happy with yours, Pflaumbaum. Particularly the concept of a baby woman, which seems to me a little Pre-modern. And I understand baby sausage, but that's just on a stick, isn't it? I prefer the original, I fear.

  31. Pflaumbaum said,

    May 18, 2011 @ 1:02 pm

    Yes, I think maybe this one is coming close to some limit of information you can pack into this sort of headline.

    You're right, I was probably wrong to say it's ungrammatical – it's okay if you analyse it as [Slough [sausage baby]] modifying [choke death].

  32. Coby Lubliner said,

    May 18, 2011 @ 1:23 pm

    To me the difficulty in parsing such headlines stems from the British reluctance to use hyphens in compound-noun modifiers (like this one), and the challenge for me is always, "where do I put the hyphen(s)?".

  33. Pflaumbaum said,

    May 18, 2011 @ 1:30 pm

    And then on the other side of the spectrum/Atlantic is Glenn Greenwald, who likes to use constructed-out-of-as-many-words-as-he-likes-as-long-as-they're-hyphenated modifiers.

  34. Marc L said,

    May 18, 2011 @ 1:36 pm

    As a newspaper editor, I can say that this type of bad headline is transatlantic. Anytime a reader has to stop, reread, mull over and go to the body of the story to understand the headline, the editor has achieved two things; he has successfully gotten the reader to read at least part of the story, and he has written a really bad headline. Win some, lose some.

  35. Dw said,

    May 18, 2011 @ 2:13 pm

    I suppose that curt newspaper headlines are, like cars/automobiles and railways/railroads, things that came into being after the split between American English and British English.

    So, from a historical point of view, it's not surprising that they are different to the point of mutual incomprehensibility.

  36. John Walden said,

    May 18, 2011 @ 2:17 pm

  37. Keith M Ellis said,

    May 18, 2011 @ 2:19 pm

    The high-contextness of Britain only relative, do you think, John, or not?

    Whether it is or not, I'm still grappling with the whole notion of a "high-context culture".

    I suppose that if I lived in one, I'd understand this.

  38. Steve F said,

    May 18, 2011 @ 2:26 pm

    There could be another linguistic aspect to this story. I had no problem at all understanding the headline because I had already seen the TV news and heard both the remarks which Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke made in a radio interview to the effect that 'some rapes were less serious than others', and Ed Miliband challenging the Prime Minister about them in the Commons. When pressed by the interviewer, Clarke went on to say that what is known as 'Statutory rape', consenting sex with a girl under the age of consent, and date rape were less serious than what he called 'forcible rape', and should attract shorter sentences. Since then he has given a second interview in which he attempts to clarify that 'he had confused "date rape" with sex with a willing but underage girl.'
    Details here
    He didn't explain how he had managed to confuse two such different acts, but one possible route is surely that he had assumed in a rather eggcornish way, that 'date' in 'date rape' referred to the date of the girl's sixteenth birthday. It sounds far-fetched, I know, but how else did he manage to confuse them?

  39. Dw said,

    May 18, 2011 @ 2:44 pm

    @John Walden.

    Close, but no cigar.

    Had the BBC's headline been

    Milliband: Sack rape row Clarke

    I contend that it would have been clearer. Although it still suggests the grotesque possibility of a "sack rape" as a particular type of rape, and Milliband advocating this as some kind of punishment for whatever "row" Clarke has been involved in.

  40. nick said,

    May 18, 2011 @ 2:48 pm

    Taking Steve F's point a little further, and speaking as a fluent reader of British headlinese: I proffer the (entirely untested) suggestion that the more extreme examples only tend to be used where there is a reasonable assumption that the reader knows the bare bones of the story already. I would guess that if you look at the very first version of the BBC report on the story the headline will be more readily comprehensible.

    For what it's worth, neither the phrase nor the concept of 'date rape' is recognised by English law, and Clarke would have been well advised to avoid the phrase entirely:

  41. Adrian said,

    May 18, 2011 @ 2:53 pm

    If I may refer the honourable ladies and gentlemen to the answer I gave some time ago, I recommend 'Keep Taking the Tabloids: What the Papers Say and How They Say It' by Fritz Spiegl

  42. David Brooks (not that one) said,

    May 18, 2011 @ 3:29 pm

    There's another level of fail, in that the headline doesn't specify which of the Miliband brothers (band of brothers?) is cited. I suppose it's routine for the leader of Labour to call for a Tory minister's resignation, but it's also the sort of thing David M might say.

  43. octopod said,

    May 18, 2011 @ 3:58 pm

    DW, surely that gets interference with "death row"; sort of picturing some kind of line-up of rapists here?

  44. Nathan said,

    May 18, 2011 @ 4:37 pm

    "High-context culture" reminds me of "Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra". I don't think y'all are there just yet.

  45. J. W. Brewer said,

    May 18, 2011 @ 4:42 pm

    "Row" in the sense of argument/fight is obviously appealing for headlinese because it's so short. But I don't recall seeing it in NYC tabloid headlines (which doesn't mean it hasn't been there . . .), perhaps because it's a much less common word in AmEng? "Furor" is the shortest N.Y. Post stock headlinese word I can think of that could have been used for "row" here. "Sack" is also pretty BrEng; since "fire" is just as short and more common in AmEng I would expect that to dominate in AmHeadlinese.

    Perhaps Mr. Clarke's first serious linguistic mistake was to say "some rapes are less serious than others" as opposed to the logically identical but probably safer "some rapes are more serious than others." Better still would have been "rape is a serious offense, but some rapes are even more serious than others", but all three set up the practical point that there should be differing levels of punishment depending on the relative gravity of the crime.

  46. Keith M Ellis said,

    May 18, 2011 @ 5:04 pm

    For what it's worth, neither the phrase nor the concept of 'date rape' is recognised by English law, and Clarke would have been well advised to avoid the phrase entirely…

    Yes, but let's be clear that neither the phrase nor the concept of "date rape" is recognized by American law, either.

    Laws against sexual violence vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction around the US, of course, but I'm not aware that there has anywhere in the US ever been a separate category of rape that occurs between two people on a date, or similar. US law in many jurisdictions has, in the past, and possibly still in the present somewhere, failed to recognize rape in the context of marriage, but that's a different matter.

    It's certainly true that in the greater context, specifically how things actually work in the real world, in the US there is an effective legal category of "date rape" and I imagine that's true in the UK, as well. In practice, it's more difficult to get a conviction for a rape that occurs in any romantic context, even though all types of acquaintance rape are far, far more common than stranger rape and thus that this is so is very tragic and unjust.

  47. J. W. Brewer said,

    May 18, 2011 @ 6:23 pm

    Having now read the BBC piece that Steve F linked, Clarke's "clarification" about what he meant by "date rape" seems at first glance ridiculous and non-credible while his original statement seems perfectly defensible — particularly because in context he was primarily trying to describe, rather than necessarily justify, the range of actual empirical current sentencing practices of judges in the English system. Of course, the tendency for "clarifications" to make matters worse rather than better is a common feature of the peculiar dialects of English spoken by politicians. It seems a particularly unfortunate row, since the substantive policy question involved (just how much of an incentive to create for guilty pleas by being how much more lenient to people to have, in fact, done quite bad things) is a difficult but important one, and the lesson that risk-averse politicians should simply stay away from the issue lest they be jumped on for saying something insensitive is an unhappy one.

    Do the semantics of "row" in BrEng headlinese specifically imply that the level of heat involved in the controversy is or at least may be disproportionate to what hypothetical reasonable people would consider the actual stakes to be?

  48. Eric P Smith said,

    May 18, 2011 @ 7:01 pm

    I am a Brit.

    @J. W. Brewer: In my experience the word ‘row’ in BrEng headlinese does not imply that the level of heat in the controversy may be disproportionate. The word is used very generally indeed for any dispute, controversy or reprimand. As with so much headlinese, the principal merit of the word ‘row’ is that the word is short.

    The longest noun pile-up that I have seen was a UK newspaper headline in the 1970s:


    That is: a baby died in Newcastle City Hospital; there has been a probe (enquiry) into the death; and if you buy this newspaper you will learn the result of the enquiry. “Newcastle City Hospital” is the proper name of the hospital, and it is analysed as (Newcastle (City Hospital)) and not ((Newcastle City) Hospital).

  49. Ian Preston said,

    May 18, 2011 @ 7:17 pm

    @Pflaumbaum: it's okay if you analyse it as [Slough [sausage baby]] modifying [choke death].

    No, to me it's:

    [ [ Slough [ [sausage choke] [baby death] ] ] woman ] jailed

    The "woman" is being linked to a "baby death" that occurred in "Slough" due to a "sausage choke". The unclearest thing seems to me to be what exactly "Slough" is modifying but I think a careful reading of the story suggests it is most plausibly there to indicate where the tragedy occurred (rather than where the woman or the baby came from).

  50. Pflaumbaum said,

    May 18, 2011 @ 8:21 pm

    Sorry yes, that's what I meant, I mangled the word-order.

  51. David L said,

    May 18, 2011 @ 9:09 pm

    Thank you, I see it now. When I saw the headline, I grasped what it meant (a baby choked to death on a sausage, and a woman was held responsible), but I was so fixated on the image of the 'sausage choke baby' as a description of the victim that I could only think she was being tagged as the 'death woman' vis a vis the baby in question.

    By the same reasoning, had some other woman liberated the sausage from the choke baby, she would have been the [sausage choke baby] [rescue woman], and her praises would have been sung throughout the land.

  52. David L said,

    May 18, 2011 @ 9:25 pm

    Is this a language-processing equivalent to those duck-rabbit pictures? When you see the duck it's hard to see the rabbit, and vice versa?

  53. John Cowan said,

    May 18, 2011 @ 11:40 pm

    Certainly high and low are always going to be relative terms, except when applied to varieties of German. The Wikipedia article on high- and low-context cultures is quite good.

  54. un malpaso said,

    May 19, 2011 @ 12:05 am

    Personally, I think the rhythm is better if you go with "Miliband: Sack Clarke re: rape row", but I think it's an extra 5 characters that way.

  55. Picky said,

    May 19, 2011 @ 4:35 am

    Thanks for the link, John. It seems to confirm what I made a total balls of trying to say: that British culture would seem low-context compared with many European cultures, but is seen as often high-context compared with some American cultures. Lord, that's another mess of a sentence!

  56. boynamedsue said,

    May 19, 2011 @ 8:28 am

    Wow, it's amazing what constant exposure to BHE can do for you. I was puzzled as to why this headline had been featured until the last paragraph, when it dawned on me that you were writing this because you believed some people might not understand the meaning. It had simply not occured to me that there was anything to be confused about.

  57. Graeme said,

    May 19, 2011 @ 8:46 am

    What's the fuss? It can't be that headline writers, since the days of hot press, have had limited space.

    I'll laff at a pile up with the best of them. But this headline clearly assumed a reader with background knowledge, eg of what the 'rape row' was. There's a difference between breaking a new, primary story, and following up its secondary ripples.

  58. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 19, 2011 @ 4:43 pm

    @un malpaso: Only 4 characters longer if you leave out the comma after re, which despite a widespread belief is not necessary or useful.

  59. Ken Brown said,

    May 19, 2011 @ 5:36 pm

    The Slough headline is totally regular within the rules of this kind of sentence. You work from right to left, with the most interesting or most defining modifiers nearest the subject.

    "woman jailed"
    What kind of woman? The baby-death woman.
    "sausage-choke" modifies that.
    Slough is the least information rich modifier so is placed furthest away. There are lots of women in Slough.

    Drop the hyphens and there you are.

  60. Acilius said,

    May 19, 2011 @ 9:56 pm

    For many years Ken Clarke has been famed for his "brutalist style" in conversation. So it's been just a matter of time before he came to be known as "Rape Row Clarke."

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