Coin change 'skin problem fear' hed noun pile puzzle

« previous post | next post »

SC, a native reader of British headlinese, was baffled by the noun pile-up "Coin change 'skin problem fear'" on the BBC News web site, because he hadn't previously encountered the story.

This isn't exactly a crash blossom, since the problem is not so much an amusing mis-parsing of the headline as the lack of any accessible interpretation at all.


  1. tudza said,

    April 21, 2012 @ 5:58 am

    Fear of catching communicable diseases from metallic money?

  2. Nick said,

    April 21, 2012 @ 6:22 am

    It seems fairly clear to me, and I hadn't encountered the story before I clicked on the link. I've seen far more confusing examples here on Language Log!

  3. Faldone said,

    April 21, 2012 @ 6:38 am

    Did they change the hed? It's now "Coin change 'could cause more skin problems' "

    [(myl) The "Coin change 'skin problem fear'" version is from the "Most Popular" list-of-links shown in the screenshot.]

  4. Joe said,

    April 21, 2012 @ 9:04 am

    I too got it right away. The quotation marks around "skin problem fear" was the key for me, as that indicated a noun pile, and the lack of agreement between "coin" and "change" indicated another noun pile, so the only reading left was a complex nominal.

  5. Dan Lufkin said,

    April 21, 2012 @ 9:21 am

    Worry that coating 5 & 10p coins with nickel may touch off allergy in some people. Good discussion here. No defense for the headline.

  6. Robert said,

    April 21, 2012 @ 9:26 am

    I also understood immediately what the story would be about. The second headline, "Warning over 'misleading' names", is much less obvious, despite being a clearer sentence to read. These noun pile-ups convey much more information once you can decode them – "OFT warns con name firms" would tell me, as a native reader of British headlinese, far more about the second story whilst using less characters and paradoxically making less sense to the average reader.

  7. Skullturf said,

    April 21, 2012 @ 9:50 am

    Is "coin change" an expression that occurs in everyday British speech? As a North American, I can say "I have a lot of change in my pocket" but not "I have a lot of coin change in my pocket".

  8. Ellen K. said,

    April 21, 2012 @ 10:04 am

    I'm really not understanding how anyone unfamiliar with the story figured out what it meant. How do you figure out that we are talking about fear of an allergic reaction to certain coins (after a change in how they are made) if you aren't familiar with the story? Can one of you who understood the headline without familiarity with the story please explain that?

  9. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    April 21, 2012 @ 10:37 am

    @Ellen K.: It's self-explanatory. The use of "coin" rather than "coins" makes clear that it must be about 5p and 10p pieces; the use of "change" rather than "modification" or "alteration" makes clear that it's about a change to the material they're made of; the use of single-quotes around "skin problem fear" makes clear that it's quoting -ologists, and the "skin" makes clear that they're dermato-; the use of "problem" rather than "unfortunate incident" makes clear that it's about an allergy; and the use of "fear" rather than "scare" makes clear that the Mint doesn't agree with the dermatologists' assessment. What could be more obvious? I don't know why anyone would bother clicking through to the story!

    (tl;dr version for the irony-deprived: I agree with Ellen K.)

  10. Robert said,

    April 21, 2012 @ 11:21 am

    @Ellen K

    I read 'skin problem fear' and assumed that somebody had suggested that they feared skin problems were being caused by something. But what? Coin change. What do they mean by "coin change"? Ah, they must have introduced new coins and somebody has said that this will cause skin problems. Bingo.

  11. LDavidH said,

    April 21, 2012 @ 11:27 am

    @Skullturf: just in case you haven't already worked it out, it's "coin change" as in "changing of coins" (or rather, changing the material certain coins are made of), not "coins as change". And I never have coins in my pocket, they fall out too easily.

  12. Joe said,

    April 21, 2012 @ 11:38 am

    @Ellen K,
    It is a interesting question how the parsing of complex nominals takes place. I don't put too much stock in one's intuitions, but here's my own thoughts. As I said, if the headline was "coin change skin problem fear," i would have been lost. But the use of quotation marks for "skin problem fear" lead me immediately to read "fear of skin problems" (maybe on knowledge of the genre of British newspaper headlines). Primed to read noun piles (plus the form "change" which could only be a noun), I applied the same parsing to "coin change," which yielded "change in coins." As i said, that's my own intuition, for what it's worth.

  13. Harry Campbell said,

    April 21, 2012 @ 11:49 am

    @Skullturf No, there's no such expression as "coin change" meaning the loose change in your pocket. Therefore it must mean some kind of change associated with coins. Coins are changing, and allegedly (quotation marks) that's associated with a fear to do with skin problems.

    Actually, the headline is carelessly punctuated. The story is not that the changing coinage allegedly causes a concern over skin problems — that's uncontroversial — but that it allegedly causes skin problems. There's a fear over coin change as regards skin problems. So what they actually meant was "Coin change 'skin problem' fear". I suggest that would have caused less puzzlement.

  14. jf said,

    April 21, 2012 @ 1:51 pm

    @Robert: Your use of 'whilst' told us more about your nativity than self-description ever could.

  15. Rod Johnson said,

    April 21, 2012 @ 2:09 pm

    @jf: really? If he had said "I was born in in a small college outside Chipping Norton on October 12, 1963," that would have been less informative than his use of "whilst"? I'm dazzled.

  16. AntC said,

    April 21, 2012 @ 5:40 pm

    @Harry "No, there's no such expression as "coin change" meaning the loose change in your pocket."

    That's right: loose change in your pocket is called "change". So the headline should be:
    Change change 'skin problem fear' — much clearer!

  17. Sarah Glover said,

    April 22, 2012 @ 12:51 am

    No problem for me with this headline – but after a lifetime of reading British headlines why would there be?

  18. Frans said,

    April 22, 2012 @ 9:23 am

    @Ellen K

    I don't know where you're from, but my probably wrong intuition of my own understanding goes something like this:

    – "skin problem fear" belongs together, so that's somewhat clear (except it looks like scare quotes)
    – therefore it's a fear for skin problems associated with a "coin change"
    – there was a fear for skin problems associated with the coin change from Guilders to Euros back around 2000.
    – since I haven't heard anything about the UK switching to the Euro, presumably this has something to do with Pounds. I suppose they're discussing some new metal or alloy for their own currency

    Of course I might've been completely wrong, but as it turns out I wasn't.

    I have absolutely no idea, however, what headlines 2 and 3 are supposed to mean. "Hair attacks" makes me envision a bunch of Amish people running around with scissors, cutting off people's hair for no apparent reason.

    [(myl) "[A] a bunch of Amish people running around with scissors, cutting off people's hair for no apparent reason" is more or less exactly what it was, except that they had a reason, which had something to do with with their theological interpretation of hair cutting as a bad thing, and their sectarian interpretation of their victims as heretics or apostates whose hair therefore ought to be cut. That's what I remember, anyhow.]

  19. Dakota said,

    April 22, 2012 @ 9:50 am

    Is anyone else baffled by "hed"?

  20. Frans said,

    April 22, 2012 @ 12:57 pm

    I forgot to explicitly state that I feel I might not have understood the headline if I hadn't experienced the Guilder to Euro switch a decade ago, which might also equate to if I had been an American — or potentially even any nationality but Dutch or German. Hence why I said, "I don't know where you're from."

    Thanks for the clarification. I suppose that leaves headline 2, which is clear enough, but gives no hint as to whose or what kind of misleading names. I assumed it was probably about product names, like a product called "fruit snack" when it only contains 1% fruit, but apparently it was about the word helpline.

  21. Chance said,

    April 22, 2012 @ 2:55 pm

    Coin change skin problem fear!

    Band rubbish split reports!

    Yes no I this is!

  22. U said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 2:14 am

    I'm a South African and I read it correctly (even guessing that the coin change involved increasing the amount of nickel). I've never heard this story or the guilder-euro one before, but I *did* know that some people are allergic to nickel.

  23. U said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 2:14 am

    On the other hand, I think "skin problem" should be in quotes and fear outside.

  24. JAK said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 4:26 am

    Here is another headline that ended up on my RSS feed today.

    Public 'back wind farm subsidies'

    Is it just a misplaced quote or am I missing something here? I sure hope there is no 'back wind' here.

    The story is about 'wind farm subsidies'.

  25. richard howland-bolton said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 6:09 am

    Presumably it's a quote. Some spokesman, woman or child is claiming that the public supports subsidies for electricity generation from wind.

    Read all about it.

  26. KevinM said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 1:08 pm

    @Dakota: Is anyone else baffled by "hed"?

    The newspaper trade developed specialized words ("hed" "graf" "lede") to describe aspects of the printed product itself. I believe that part of the rationale was that fake words would be less likely to accidentally find their way into print (like the famous Carter-era dummy hed "Mush from the Wimp").

  27. Ellen K. said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 10:36 pm

    I think because the idea of a allergy to metal is outside my experience, it was hard to parse. Not something I expect anyone to be allergic too.

RSS feed for comments on this post