Death by Balzac

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Last week, I came across what I thought was an artful headline in my local paper (Calgary Herald; 03/21/1012):

Police looking into death by Balzac

What reader wouldn't be lured into dipping further into this article, into wondering what human tragedy or comedy awaits in the finer print? Are we to be treated to the investigation of a lurid, long-unsolved murder committed by one of the fathers of literary realism? A horrible accident involving a tome flung from a high-rise balcony? Someone suffering an asthma attack after reading a suffocating passage of nineteenth-century French prose?

Well, none of these. As it happens, Balzac is the name of a hamlet just north of Calgary, and the location where the body of a dead man was recently found.

Still, I was chagrined to find that the article's headline has recently been stripped of its offending ambiguity:

In a Language Log post some time ago, Geoff Pullum wrote:

Languages love multiple meanings. They lust after them. They roll around in them like a dog in fresh grass.

Well so do I. They're one of life's more delightful small pleasures, a gentle reminder that things are not always what they seem. Granted, Geoff was talking about polysemy, not garden path sentences. And I'm as ready as anyone to roll my eyes when a journalist's verbal clumsiness leads the reader down the path only to dead-end at a steaming putrid noun pile. But ambiguity has its aesthetic possibilities, and if advertisers can gracefully wield the fine art of parallel meanings, I see no reason why it should be proscribed in headline writing.


  1. Rube said,

    March 28, 2012 @ 2:14 pm

    "Death by Balzac" would have made a great title for a Richard Brautigan story or poem.

  2. Morten Jonsson said,

    March 28, 2012 @ 2:20 pm

    Nineteenth century, not eighteenth.

  3. Mark Etherton said,

    March 28, 2012 @ 2:21 pm

    I would have expected a death like Charles Alkan's.

    Balzac the novelist is C19, while the less well-known Guez de Balzac is C17, so suspicion of suffocation by C18 prose can be eliminated from our calculations, Watson.

  4. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 28, 2012 @ 2:32 pm

    Presumably any time a town or school has the same name as a famous person (whether it was named in his/her honor or is sheer coincidence) these sorts of comical misreadings become possible. I assume for example there must be Nebraska newspaper headlines with the word "Lincoln" in them that would yield absurd meanings if they were initially read as referring to the president rather than the city. One classic I remember seeing was "Christ the King Ranked #1" (referring in context to the girls' basketball team from a Catholic high school with that name).

  5. Julie Sedivy said,

    March 28, 2012 @ 2:32 pm

    @ Morten and Mark: Absolutely right. I've corrected the error.

  6. KevinM said,

    March 28, 2012 @ 2:52 pm

    @ J.W. Brewer: My favorite local Catholic hIgh school team name is the "Immaculate Lions."

    And would that be Judith "Lamb" Sedivy?

  7. Mark Etherton said,

    March 28, 2012 @ 3:59 pm

    The ambiguity in 'Death by Balzac' depends on the additional meaning of 'by' to mean 'near'. This is strange to me, a BrE speaker from London, except in the limited case of place names: if you put 'by' into the search of the list of places in, four of the first five are somewhere-by-somewhereelse (eg Ashby by Partney in Lincolnshire), but I didn't know it was in current usage anywhere.

  8. bfwebster said,

    March 28, 2012 @ 4:00 pm

    Actually, it's not "fresh grass" that dogs typically enjoy rolling around in. :-)

  9. Sasha Volokh said,

    March 28, 2012 @ 4:17 pm

    Mmm, "chagrined".

  10. grackle said,

    March 28, 2012 @ 5:03 pm

    And often I've wondered as I've passed the local St. Bernard school, why they would name a school after a dog.

  11. EndlessWaves said,

    March 28, 2012 @ 7:15 pm

    @Mark: You've never visited the ice cream van by the seafront?

    Or have you seen the new shopping complex they've built by the showground?

    Using it in this way with a place name does feel a bit awkward though, I wonder how common it is compared with the near it's been replaced with.

  12. Eric P Smith said,

    March 28, 2012 @ 7:18 pm

    @Mark Etherington: I’m surprised. I’m a BrE speaker from Edinburgh. For me, ‘near’ is one of the primary meanings of by: by the door, by the lake, by the sea, by the harbour, By the Rivers of Babylon, St. Columba’s by the Castle, etc.

    Or have I misunderstood you?

  13. Eric P Smith said,

    March 28, 2012 @ 7:20 pm

    Sorry, EndlessWaves: I see you got there first!

  14. Ralph Hickok said,

    March 28, 2012 @ 7:33 pm

    @Mark Etherton:
    I also noted the unusual sense of "by." I associate that usage with German-Americans, since "bei" can mean "near" as well as "at," "on," "in," "with," "during," to mention a few, and Germans tend to use "by" in all those senses when speaking English.

    When I was a child in Wisconsin, I heard many jokes poking fun at German-American speech. In one of those jokes, a woman tells a friend that she just got new glasses.

    "Bifocals?" the friend asks.

    "No," the woman replies, "by Schuster's."

    Well, I guess you had to be there. (In those days, Schuster's was the major department store in Milwaukee.

  15. GeorgeW said,

    March 28, 2012 @ 7:54 pm

    "And darlin', darlin', stand by me, oh now now stand by me
    Stand by me, stand by me"

    In any event, 'near' works much better than 'by' in this headline.

  16. Doug said,

    March 28, 2012 @ 9:37 pm

    The first thing i thought of was someone perishing from a fire caused by a Balzac shrine like the one from The 400 Blows.

  17. John Swindle said,

    March 28, 2012 @ 11:10 pm

    @Ralph Hickok: Good thought. There are some German speakers in Alberta (Wikipedia says 84,505 of them in 2006), and I would guess that there might have been proportionally more of them in the 20th century when today's reporters were growing up.

  18. rwmg said,

    March 28, 2012 @ 11:27 pm

    As a British speaker from SE England, I agree that 'by' + common noun is unremarkable (she was standing by the bus stop), but 'by' + place name strikes me as distinctly odd except where the 'by' is actually part of the place name. The only way I could make sense of the headline was to assume that the police had somehow been fooled into investigating a death which only existed in one of Balzac's works. However, 1 April is still 10 days away.

  19. John said,

    March 29, 2012 @ 2:34 am

    rwmg: To me, if someone's standing "by" the bus stop they are right next to it; if they are only standing "near" the bus stop they might be a bit further away (and not necessarily waiting for a bus). The same would apply to the location where someone dies.
    If the mall in question was commonly referred to as just "Balzac", then I can see how the original reporters might not think twice about it, but the editor might have and thus clarified the headline. For example, "Police looking into death by Big Ben" seems fine, unless there is a local personality called Big Ben.

    GeorgeW: Well, "stand by" has 3 different meanings whereas "stand near" has only one. Let's see how well this works:
    "And darlin', darlin', stand near me, oh now now stand near me
    Stand near me, stand near me"

  20. maidhc said,

    March 29, 2012 @ 3:56 am

    There's a fascinating museum south of Calgary, near Fort Macleod, that has the wonderful name Head-Smashed-In. It turned up in a Dave Barry column some years ago, because he was was quite taken with the way they answer the phone there ("Good morning, Head-Smashed-In"). But as far as I know, its potential for interesting headlines is still untapped.

  21. GeorgeW said,

    March 29, 2012 @ 6:03 am

    @John: No, 'near' doesn't work in these lyrics and for reasons related to the proximity factor you mentioned. To stand by someone (physically or metaphorically giving support) would require closer proximity than 'near.'

  22. rwmg said,

    March 29, 2012 @ 7:44 am

    @ John, now you see to me, "standing by the bus stop" would mean standing right next to the bus stop, but not waiting for a bus. If I meant she was standing there because she was waiting for a bus, I would say "standing at the bus stop".

  23. Terry Collmann said,

    March 29, 2012 @ 7:48 am

    That police sergeant looks to British eyes, with the yellow band around his head, like a traffic warden.

  24. Skullturf said,

    March 29, 2012 @ 10:11 am

    I am but one data point (and I'm North American), but my intuition is similar to that of rwmg above.

    "By" + common noun: totally unremarkable. (by the beach, by the shopping center, etc.)

    "By" + proper noun: more unusual. I'd be much more likely to say "near Philadelphia", "near Oxford", etc. (Though "by" would not be unheard of.)

  25. Eric P Smith said,

    March 29, 2012 @ 10:54 am

    rwmg (BrE) and Skullturf (AmE) have remarked that by + placename is unusual. Nowadays, yes. But in the UK until the 1960s it was 100% standard, and a large proportion of rural addresses had the word "by" in them in their standard form as used by the Post Office. A typical example would be: Durness Primary School, Durness, by Lairg, Sutherland. Notice that in that address "by" is not part of a place name: there was no place called "Durness by Lairg" in the way that there is a place called "Ashby by Partney". Rather, "by" is a preposition used at the start of the line of an address that links one place name with another. With the introduction of Postcodes in the 1960s the standard form became Durness Primary School, Durness, LAIRG, Sutherland, IV27 4PN

  26. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 29, 2012 @ 12:01 pm

    Google finds Americans saying "by" with place names. I think it's fairly rural. In northern New Mexico, I've heard it from Hispanic people. "I live up by Abiquiu" (in the village of Tierra Azul, say).

  27. Ted said,

    March 29, 2012 @ 12:52 pm

    Down by the river, I shot my baby.

    (Note to RCMP: This is an allusion, not a confession.)

    But it's not surprising that this is a common Canadian usage — the capital, after all, used to be called Bytown.

  28. richard said,

    March 29, 2012 @ 1:59 pm

    @rwmg, in Wisconsin you go by the bus stop to wait on the bus. It's real simple.

  29. GeorgeW said,

    March 29, 2012 @ 2:06 pm

    What may be unusual is [by + place noun] (not proper noun).

    'Stand by Susie' or 'She is standing by John' or 'She walked by Jane' are unremarkable to me.

    [(myl) In COCA, {[stand] by the} gets 1576 hits, compared to 357 for {[stand] next to the}. The great majority of the {[stand] by the} hits are indications of location rather than of solidarity.]

  30. a George said,

    March 29, 2012 @ 6:49 pm

    @ Ralph Hickok: was the other department store or the optician called "Vogel's"?

  31. John Swindle said,

    March 30, 2012 @ 12:48 am

    @Terry Collmann: It may be that British traffic wardens have protective coloration to make them look like RCMP sergeants. The officer in the picture is identified elsewhere as RCMP spokeswoman Sgt. Patricia Neely (rather than "Nealy" as in the caption). She'd be standing at the roadblock to meet the press and to look determined to solve the crime, if any.

  32. dude said,

    March 30, 2012 @ 9:57 am

    Who could forget Balzac's posthumously published metaphysical masterpiece "Police Looking Into Death"?

  33. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 30, 2012 @ 10:25 am

    Jerry F., to my AmEng ear "up by PLACENAME" (as in your example), "down by PLACENAME," and "over by PLACENAME" are all fairly unremarkable (at least in some sorts of discourse contexts), but "by PLACENAME" without another preposition preceding the "by" does sound peculiar.

  34. David Walker said,

    June 26, 2012 @ 5:20 pm

    Street signs in San Francisco:

    "Bus Stop – No Standing"

    That always baffled me.

    I was later told that "standing" means sitting in your car while it's idling. I presume that sign also implies "No Parking".

    Still, the sign is extremely weird.

  35. Eric P Smith said,

    September 6, 2012 @ 11:15 am

    The issues here on the use of ‘by’ meaning “near" are the same as those explored on the previous LL post Death by Balzac.

    I avoid the construction “to doubt that (content clause)”, because I am conscious of its ambiguity. In my childhood in Scotland I occasionally heard older people using it to mean “I am apprehensive that”, especially if there was a modal verb in the subordinate clause. For example older people would say “I doubt that he may go bankrupt” meaning “I am apprehensive that he may go bankrupt”. In place of the more modern sense of “I suspect that … not”, I would always use “I doubt whether”. For example I would say “I doubt whether he will come back” meaning “I suspect that he will not come back”.

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