Headline stuff

When I posted on Calvin (of Calvin and Hobbes) and his mastery of tabloid headlinese, readers contributed two kinds of comments (here and on Facebook): appreciations of inventive headlines, and notes on the vocabulary of headlinese.

Headline cleverness. From a Language Log posting on 3/28/06:

in certain domains writers are inclined towards all kinds of playing with language: in advertising, headlines for feature stories, and titles of porn flicks …, and also generally in science writing for a popular audience …, among other places. In [earlier postings], I focused on playful variations on formulaic language, but formulaic language often appears “straight” (though in such a way as to call attention to itself), and there’s a lot of phonological playfulness — rhyme, alliteration, assonance, transposition, etc.

And from a posting on this blog on 7/27/11:

The Economist is famously given to word play in its titles: playful allusions, puns (“Water good idea”, on an article about harvesting drinking water from fog — an imperfect pun on “What a good idea” that works better in British English than American), and, especially, perfect puns embedded in fixed expressions (“Parallel bars”, on barriers to parallel programming; “Pipe dreams”, on proposals for plugging leaks in the water supply). All these, and more, are in the same issue as “Don’t shoot the cucumber”. The Economist is definitely a “ludic locale”.

New Scientist is similarly ludic in its heads and titles. Just from the magazine’s covers, recently:

11/29/14: Give a dog a phone: Technology for our furry friends
12/6/14 three examples:

Have Space Probe, Will Travel: New Scientist’s mission to look for life on Europa
Pumping Iron: Are fortified foods too rich for your blood?
Smarty Plants (They think. They react. They remember. It’s time we rethought intelligence)

Back on responses to my Calvin posting. First, from Ann Burlingham, recently back from a family visit to Toronto, where they had an excellent dinner at a steak house; then they came across a copy of the previous week’s Toronto Star, with front-page news of the steakhouse’s owner:

WELL DONE
Steakhouse owner tenderizes alleged robber

(with plays on well done and tenderize, alluding to the steakhouse domain).

And Amanda Cormier tweeted with a Washington Post Express head reporting Chris Rock’s filing for divorce from his wife:

Rock’s papers
scissor union

(alluding to the game Rock Paper Scissors).

Then Tim Pierce weighed in, with a headline that struck me as too good to be true:

My favorite headline of all time was the one that went around a few years ago, about a tightrope-walking competition held over the Han river, titled “Skywalker crosses Han solo”. I can only assume that most editors dream about having such an opportunity come across their desks.

But it’s genuine. From the 5/3/07 Washington Post:

Skywalkers in Korea Cross Han Solo

Notice that the head has been improved some in later versions: the multiple competitors have been made singular and in Korea has been suppressed, all to make the head a perfect allusion to Star Wars, with the characters Luke Skywalker and Han Solo.

Now to the classics, beginning with STICKS NIX HICK PIX. From Wikipedia:

STICKS NIX HICK PIX was a headline printed in Variety, a newspaper covering Hollywood and the entertainment industry, on July 17, 1935, over an article about the reaction of rural audiences to movies about rural life. It is one of the most famous headlines ever to appear in an American publication.

Using a form of headlinese that the newspaper called slanguage, “Sticks Nix Hick Pix” means that people in rural areas (“the sticks”) reject (“nix”) motion pictures (“pix”) about rural life (“hicks”). The conventional wisdom of the movie industry was that themes of upper-class life would not be popular in the countryside; according to the article, this assumption was incorrect.

The headline is one of a handful that have entered the lore of journalism, as described in the essay “Breaking Out from the Herd” by longtime Associated Press reporter Hugh Mulligan:

Down the years, some of journalism’s most famous headlines have brilliantly suggested what happened and have coaxed the reader to find out more:

WALL STREET LAYS AN EGG [written for Variety by Claude Binyon]
FORD TO NEW YORK: DROP DEAD
HEADLESS TORSO FOUND IN TOPLESS BAR
HICKS NIX PIX IN STICKS

Mulligan got three of the four headlines wrong, including the “Stix” headline: The 1975 New York Daily News headline was actually “Ford to City: Drop Dead”. The April 15, 1983 New York Post headline was: “Headless Body in Topless Bar”.

He is one of many who have misquoted the “Stix” headline over the years. It is often misquoted with all four words ending in X. That misspelling appeared in the 1942 film Yankee Doodle Dandy, in which George M. Cohan (played by James Cagney) explains the headline’s meaning to several young people, who use it as the basis of an impromptu swing song.

(On the headless body in the topless bar, Kai von Fintel provided a link to a 2/25/12 story by Dick Belsky on “How I Helped Write the Best Tabloid Headline Ever’.)

Headlinese. From Wikipedia:

Because space is limited, headlines are written in a compressed telegraphic style, using special syntactic conventions…

[and short forms:]

Individuals are usually named by their last name only, with no honorifics.

Organizations and institutions are often named by metonymy: “Wall Street” for “the financial industry”, “Whitehall” for the UK government administration, “Madrid” for “the government of Spain”, “Davos” for “World Economic Forum”, and so on.

Headlines use many contractions and abbreviations: in the USA, for example, Pols (for “politicians”), Dems (for “Democrats”), GOP (for the Republican Party, from the nickname “Grand Old Party”), Govt for government; in the UK, Lib Dems (for the Liberal Democrats), Tories (for the Conservative Party).

To save space, headlines often use extremely short words (many of which are not in common use otherwise) in unusual or idiosyncratic ways:

e.g., axe (eliminate), eye (consider), nab, pen (write), probe (investigation), rap (criticize), vie (compete).

Tim Pierce noted that a tabloid head would use mom rather that mother (as Calvin did in his headline). And Bob Richmond commented on this blog:

A lot of headline-ese words have disappeared. Decades ago I imagined the ultimate headline-ese headline “Yule Prexy Ouster Slated”. Nowadays editors get bombarded about any substitution of “Christmas”, prexy (president) has disappeared, ouster is rare. Autopsies are still slated, for some reason. (This old pathologist notes that it’s quite handy to have a chalkboard in an autopsy room.)

Things go out of fashion.

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