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A hundred years ago

4 Sep

What a front page this is:

© Vancouver Sun/Postmedia

There’s a New-York Times-style triple-stack headline at the top, complete with semicolons – except that, unlike the Times, the three headlines are about three separate stories, which you then have to hunt about on the page to find; it’s not so much a headline as a news briefing. As a bonus, one of the headlines is wrong: “Nikolai” (? Vladimir?) “Lenine” (? spelling?) was not “shuffled off stage” by a “woman assassin” in 1918, as students of history will know: the Sun was misled by a telegram from Russia and was unaware that he had survived.

Then there are the peculiar tense sequences in some of the headlines: “Petrograd reports Bolsheviki leader dies by assassin” (not “has died”); “French troops take Loury; captured thousand Huns” (not “capture”). Then there are the flying verbs in the standfirsts, appearing decorously after the subject has been introduced (“They have got a footing in important wooded region; still advance”). Then there’s the Daily Express-style braggadocio in the masthead: “A Great Newspaper Growing Greater”. Someone has written a list headline (“This is August bag”). Someone’s even used the word “famous” in the furniture, which wouldn’t have passed the Tribune’s revise desk without comment.

I don’t know what the count rules are for those staggered three-deck headlines, but someone seems to have broken them for the Lenin story: the first two decks are so full that it looks like the third has been set right by mistake. “…is summary of report” is a slightly anticlimactic way to end a headline that starts “Huns now admitting defeat”.

But it’s impossible not to love the rhetorical panache of the subheads (“ONWARD FROM BAPAUME”), the profusion of visual entry points, or the exhilarating jumble of the 12-story layout. 1918 was a tumultuous year, to be sure, but in the 2 September edition of the Daily Sun, published 100 years ago this week, there’s not a headline you wouldn’t want to write or a story you wouldn’t want to read.


The 18th type of headline

29 May

One edition of the New York Post, two page leads that give pause for thought for anyone who, a week earlier, might have ambitiously been attempting to compile a taxonomy of headlines:

The back-page headline is of a recognisable type: the question is, which type? The Post is understandably jubilant about the Mets’ series triumph over the Arizona Diamondbacks, but that doesn’t fully explain what it means by SWEEP SNAKES. As the team that lost all three games on their visit to New York, it wasn’t the Snakes that were doing the sweeping, as the headline implies: the Snakes were the ones being swept.

So this could be one of two things. It could just be another unparseable tabloid pun (headline type 12): aspects of the story jammed together to create a homophonous phrase without too much attention paid to syntax. But the presence of a verb and an object along with the obvious absence of the subject, especially in an American publication, also entices one to think that it might be a flying verb (headline type 14): that the intended sentence is in fact METS SWEEP SNAKES.

In the UK, the Sun also comes up with headlines very like this – ones that make more grammatical sense if you assume the subject is implied – but there’s no tradition of flying-verb constructions in Britain and the assumption in those cases has to be just that sense has been sacrificed in the pursuit of the joke.

That would certainly seem to be the case on the Post’s front page headline too, at least for the part in big type: there is not much actual grammatical sense to be found in the phrase WEED MY LIPS. But the preamble above, “De Blasio to NYPD”, recalls a famous American headline from days gone by, still regularly reproduced today, that is harder to categorise:

The original appeared in New York in 1975, when President Ford made a speech declining to approve federal assistance to the near-bankrupt city authorities, to the fury of the Daily News. As the New York Times remembers, FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD was originally notorious for its perceived lack of fairness – was it really accurate to summarise the president’s words in such a belligerent way? Ford himself blamed it for his losing New York, and by extension the presidency, to Jimmy Carter in the following year’s election, even though by that stage he had relented and loaned the city money. But as a form, its rhetorical efficiency is so obvious that it has outlived its controversial origins and become a reliable construction in its own right.

It’s not quite a voice-of-the-author (headline type 5) because it attempts to speak in the voice of the protagonist, rather than the writer. And it’s not quite an annotated quote (headline type 4) because the intent is clearly to editorialise the message rather than simply reproduce it. It therefore qualifies, I think, as an 18th type of headline, and the list will be updated accordingly. (A scant two weeks after being published. Still, I did say it was hubristic).

British subjects

31 Oct

Hot on the heels of HeadsUp’s discovery of a 1940s style guide covering flying verbs, which advises against their  use “if the verb might be understood to be in the imperative mode”, here’s a good example of an imperative and a flying verb side by side:

Seeing them in close proximity, you realise how easy it is to distinguish one form from the other when that golden rule is followed: “Hid” (clearly implied subject: third person, unknown) against “Go” (clearly implied subject: you). There is none of the confusion caused when, for example, POLICE ARREST DANGER MAN becomes ARREST DANGER MAN.

Nonetheless, it’s still quite ambitious: I’ve never before seen a flying verb headline introduce a second, explicit, subject (“we”) before clarifying who the implied one is (“him”). And the most striking thing of all is that this appeared on the BBC news website: only the second flying verb I have ever encountered in a British-English publication. The article headline itself contains an explicit subject, so the distinctively transatlantic omission on the homepage is presumably only for space reasons. But still, if the classic British existential headline* is now starting to appear in the US, as HeadsUp has observed, perhaps a full-scale cultural exchange is under way?


*Those starting FURY AS… , OUTRAGE AS… , JOY AS… , etc