Noun pile growth threat fear

11 May

The noun pile is a firmly established part of British journalistic life, but it’s fascinating to look back at the first pioneering steps in its creation (or at least as Michael Frayn imagines them in his satire The Tin Men):

If Goldwasser was remembered for nothing else, Macintosh once told Rowe, he would be remembered for his invention of UHL.

UHL was Unit Headline Language, and it consisted of a comprehensive lexicon of all the multi-purpose monosyllables used by headline-writers. Goldwasser’s insight had been to see that if the grammar of “ban”, “dash”, “fear”, and the rest was ambiguous, they could be used in almost any order to make a sentence, and if they could be used in almost any order to make a sentence they could be easily randomised …

UHL, Goldwasser quickly realised, was an ideal answer to the problem of making a story run from day to day in an automated paper. Say, for example, that the randomiser turned up

STRIKE THREAT

By adding one unit at random to the formula each day the story could go:

STRIKE THREAT BID

STRIKE THREAT PROBE

STRIKE THREAT PLEA

and so on. Or the units could be added cumulatively:

STRIKE THREAT PLEA

STRIKE THREAT PLEA PROBE

STRIKE THREAT PLEA PROBE MOVE

STRIKE THREAT PLEA PROBE MOVE SHOCK

STRIKE THREAT PLEA PROBE MOVE SHOCK HOPE

Of course modern sub-editors no longer have to restrict themselves to monosyllables, or even common multi-purpose words: great news for those working to tight headline counts, such as those on the BBC website. Nowadays we can effortlessly produce noun piles like this:

So, to parse it from back to front, as one should: a teacher has been banned. Which teacher? The strip club teacher. Which strip club teacher? The Longridge Towers school strip club teacher. Which Longridge Towers school? The one in Northumberland.

Actually, that last bit seems odd. As far as Google can ascertain, there seems to be only one Longridge Towers school in Britain. “Northumberland”, then, isn’t serving to narrow down a series of options, as it would in a classic noun pile. As we have previously discussed, in the internet age, the syntax of Unit Headline Language has at times been adulterated by the addition of good SEO words, presumably on the basis that there are so many nouns in the phrase already, who’s going to object to another one? But it does disrupt the progression of specificity that is the hallmark of the classical form.

Even given that problem, the noun pile headline remains invaluable, particularly for those legally tricky stories where using a verb might get you sued. And it sounds like that aspect of the technology was perfect right from the start:

Goldwasser had had a survey conducted, in fact, in which 457 people were shown the headlines

ROW HOPE MOVE FLOP

LEAK DASH SHOCK

HATE BAN BID PROBE

Asked if they thought they understood the headlines, 86.4 per cent said yes, but of those 97.3 per cent were unable to offer any explanation of what it was they had understood.

We’re scarcely able to improve on those numbers today.

2 Responses to “Noun pile growth threat fear”

  1. Steve Dunham May 11, 2021 at 2:32 pm #

    Northumberland may be mentioned for the benefit of readers who don’t know where Longridge Towers School is, or whether it is a school or a TV comedy. 😉 But that noun pile also sounds like the school has a strip club, not that it had a teacher who took students to a strip club.

    • edlatham May 11, 2021 at 3:54 pm #

      It does sound like that! But I don’t think even the British private school system goes that far(?)

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