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The cook, the thief, his wife and her headline

21 Mar

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So the allegation is that City regulators waved through an allegedly illicit payment for a supposedly profitable oilfield to a man who had been convicted of a money-laundering offence over an unrelated matter. Two huge oil companies allegedly completed the transaction with this man via the offices of a national government. Former MI6 officers are claimed to have been at the heart of the deal and some of the money in question was also used to purchase armoured cars, it is alleged.

Picking the right verb for the headline at times like this is tricky – or at least, finding space for the kind of caution that the Tribune’s lawyer will be happy with. “Accused of”, “said to have”, “reported to be” – they make the story safer in the courts, but dilute its impact on the page. As previously discussed, you could always replace the verb with “in”, for that useful combination of vagueness and implication. Or you could use “amid” for those collections of circumstances whose precise relationship to each other is hard to elucidate.*

But if the verbs are hard, the nouns are easy in stories like this: they jump out. Oil, disgrace, MI6, armour, $800m: there’s too many to choose from. With ingredients this good, you don’t actually need to write a sentence: you can just write a shopping list.

And they’re easy to assemble. Start with one or two of the most colourful bits of the story. Put the core of the news last. If you like, add an EMPHATIC Daily Mail intensifier in uppercase as garnish … and you’ve got yourself a list headline.

Like this:

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This is, of course, the General Petraeus love-affair scandal that shook the US in 2012. By this stage of the investigation, the whole story had become quite complicated, with a second woman and another leading general drawn in to the narrative. This Mail article actually reveals there were two sets of emails, sent independently between more than one pair of protagonists; the second was only discovered by chance after an unrelated police inquiry. That’s a lot to try to explain even in headlines as long as the Daily Mail’s. So the obvious thing to do is to abandon the verbs and go with the nouns.

What’s even more impressive is the second part of that headline: an adverbial clause followed by an object noun phrase, separated by a comma and nothing else. That’s advanced verb-avoidance indeed.

Admittedly, in this case, it’s hard to read any but the most benign missing words into the gap:

As a SECOND general is dragged in, [read] the story of the sex scandal gripping America

As a SECOND general is dragged in, [this is] the story of the sex scandal gripping America

But it goes to show how well you can attract readers’ attention without ever telling them what’s going on.

*Or, indeed, is non-existent.

Fly me to the Sun

9 Mar

BONUS UPDATE: It’s the day after Budget Day, and what the heck does this mean?

The nation may be abuzz with debate about whether the chancellor’s change to National Insurance for the self-employed is retribution against the wealthy and their artificial “service companies” used to avoid tax, or an attack on the working-class independent contractor – the Sun’s beloved “White Van Man” – at a time of economic upheaval. But never mind that. By far the most pressing question of the day is: is this a flying verb?

Scarcely two days after this blog made the confident assertion that flying-verb headlines would never be seen in Britain as they used to be, decades ago, in American tabloids, up pops the Sun with something that looks an awful lot like… well, what is it?

It’s not an adjective: “spite van man” might be an acceptable pun to refer to a van-driver who has done something unpleasant or vicious, but that’s not the story here. It’s not, similarly, an imperative: the article isn’t calling for retribution, simply analysing the news.

Is the chancellor himself, in the picture, being described as the “spite van man”, perhaps? Hard to see how: he doesn’t have a van, nor is he spiting the vehicles themselves. And look at the first standfirst: “Hammond £240 raid on self-employed”. Doesn’t that tempt you to believe that the sense is “Tories spite van man” – that the subject of the sentence has been deleted, leaving the verb to fly?

Perhaps not, in fact. The likeliest explanation is that it’s a simple rhyming pun that ultimately fails to mean anything: a bit like the baffling (and much-criticised) “NOD IN MY NAME” front page the Sun ran about Jeremy Corbyn supposedly not bowing sufficiently at the Cenotaph. That was a familiar pacifist phrase with one word altered to fit the news, but not something you could actually parse for sense.

But on a day when even the Daily Star (“ROB THE BUILDER!“) is running strange, agentless Budget headlines on page 1, you’re entitled to wonder if an old headline form is lumbering improbably back to life. Who exactly is doing the robbing?

UPDATE TO THE UPDATE: Day 2, and I think this idea is approaching the end of its development curve.

Still, at least it’s clear that this one’s an imperative.

 

Is it a verb? Is it a plane?

7 Mar

Quite by chance, while trawling through the New York Daily News archives for last time’s post on baseball, I found two fine examples of one of the strangest phenomena in journalism: the “flying verb”.

When I first came across them, courtesy of Fred at HeadsUp, I found them utterly baffling. The placing of an isolated verb at the start of a sentence is an almost exclusively American phenomenon, now vanishingly rare even there. And when you see them for the first time, it’s almost impossible to parse them correctly. To me, they read automatically as imperatives, like a thunderous headline on an editorial demanding action (“Won’t someone – anyone – trap Coster’s arms dealer?”).

But in fact, they’re not imperatives, or some obscure form of passive construction; they’re even odder than that. What they are, as Fred explains, is perfectly normal subject-verb-object sentences, but with the subject of the sentence deleted. So the sense of “Seize 62 Mafia Chieftains in Upstate Raid” is “Police Seize 62 Mafia Chieftains In Upstate Raid”. Similarly, “Trap Coster’s Arms Dealer” means “Authorities Trap Coster’s Arms Dealer”.*

The construction is so alien to British eyes that you would think they would never appear over here. But in fact, a species of them does exist, in plain sight, on one of the most widely read sites in British journalism: the Daily Mail’s Sidebar of Shame.

Indeed, alongside the very long headlines and very short standfirsts, they are one of the most distinctive features of Britain’s pre-eminent source of dispiriting online gossip. As we can see from these examples, taken from the site in a single visit, the Sidebar’s standfirsts – perhaps for lack of space if no other reason – frequently employ flying verbs (here “looked”, “got”, “added”, “opted”) to add detail to the story.

Of course, in these cases, they always follow sentences in which an agent has been clearly identified, and always seem to be in the past tense, which rules out their being read as imperatives. I don’t think British readers are ready for full flying verbs in 120-point caps on page one with no sign of a subject in sight. Write headlines no one can understand.

 

*Mr Coster, who made the News’s splash that day, was unknown to me, and also not the reason that that page has entered posterity (that was because of the picture story below, which is of Mayor LaGuardia** with a black eye after a confrontation in the street). But some tenuous Googling reveals that he was F Donald Coster, real name Phillip Musica, a notorious Prohibition rum-runner turned arms dealer whose criminal activities were at the centre of the McKesson & Robbins Scandal of 1938.

** After whom, of course, the airport is named.

If I had a hammer

21 Feb

Looks like the Bambino really put the good wood on this one:

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At least, I assume that’s what the headline means here. “Carpenters”?

This blog has enthused before about the (now vanished) propensity for American journalism to mass-produce new synonyms. So this – the most famous achievement (home run record) by the most famous player (Babe Ruth) on baseball’s most famous team (1927 Yankees) – might be expected to inspire the New York Daily News to great heights.

And so it proves: the home run record is the “circuit mark”, the record-breaking hit is the “bam”; on the breathless front page (“O, Babe!”), Ruth is “the great G Herman” and the home run a “stupendous swat”, cheered to the echo by “shouting customers” at Yankee Stadium. Inside, a young Paul Gallico, who would later go on to write The Poseidon Adventure, is in awe: “When Ruth conks one it stays conked. Of all the home runs I have seen him hit, only one could be called a high fly, and then it was so doggone high that no outfielder in the world could have snagged it. It went so blinkin’ high that it looked like of those things they drop off the Flatiron building for a publicity stunt.”

The enthusiasm for variation even extends to the main illustration on page 28: seven different portraits of Ruth with different captions, variously describing him as “George Herman Ruth”, “G.H. Ruth”, “George H. Ruth”, “Babe Ruth”, the “Colossus of Clout” and the “Sultan of Swat”.

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But still: “carpentered”? Although I’ve never heard it used as a verb, most dictionaries list it as one. Merriam-Webster’s entry is typical:

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But those definitions, and certainly number (2), suggest a kind of mundane repetition, or weary prefabrication, that hardly fits the hyperbolic tone of a newspaper “tickled silly” by all the excitement. So what’s the sense? Is it a failed neologism, perhaps meaning something like “to strike great blows with a hammer” or “to drive in the final nail”? Is it a piece of lost 1920s slang that readers would have understood?

Or is it just a slightly ironic way of saying in the headline, “look, he’s done it again“? Perhaps: Marshall Hunt’s match report, on the same page, at one point reads: “The coronation exercises took place tumultuously yesterday afternoon when that most famous of the famous, George Herman Ruth, patterned his 60th home run of the current season in the eighth inning and thereby established another world’s record.”

If so, though, it’s a slightly underwhelming verb to choose for a block caps main headline on a historic day, even if it does help fill out the measure. On balance, I think I prefer “Socko!”

Twenty-two dropouts

7 Feb

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It’s good to hear that Scotland will be supporting Mr O’Halloran despite his ailments. Oh no, wait. Ahaha: a laughable misunderstanding. Not “backs” as a third-person singular verb, but “backs” as an adjective, modifying “coach”. Now the sentence parses correctly: it did seem to be in want of a comma otherwise.

This is actually a bit of a hazard in rugby headlines: the number of nouns there are in the sport that can also be read as verbs. It must get tricky at times for sports subs working in tight measures. Not just “back”, but “forward” too: and “centre”, “prop”, “wing”, “maul”, “restart”  … There are probably others too, but I can’t immediately think of them.

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Wow, George must have really infuriated the management this time.

Neutral News at Ten

24 Jan

Now this – this – is a news organisation that’s committed to impartiality:

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On Fleet Street, where the culture wars rage, no one is surprised that newspapers take sides in their use of language just as they do on their leader pages. But imagine the pressure to stay out of trouble if you’re writing the BBC’s style guide – the benchmark for judicious, non-partisan, inclusive journalism, paid for by all and bound by conscience to reflect all views.

How does it do? By and large, very well. In all areas where it can stay aloof, it does. It frequently links to the painstakingly fair current affairs briefings on the BBC’s Academy website, and it demonstrates a capacity to make distinctions and see both sides that is almost jurisprudential. Whether distinguishing a population from the militants that claim to represent them, or identifying both winners and losers when interest rates rise, it’s hard not to like a style guide that reminds you “not all Tamils are Tigers”, or that “good news” is “not to be used as a blanket term”. For example:

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But the problem for all style guides is that there are areas of political language where it is impossible to stay aloof, because the only terms in common use have become polarised. The BBC guide is more silent than it should be on some of these: there is no help for its journalists on the choice between “bedroom tax” and “spare room subsidy”, for instance, or whether it is fair to call George Osborne’s higher national wage a “living wage”, as he did. But there is at least one controversial area where it does offer guidance, to say this:

Abortion

Avoid pro-abortion, and use pro-choice instead. Campaigners favour a woman’s right to choose, rather than abortion itself. And use anti-abortion rather than pro-life, except where it is part of the title of a group’s name. 

At the left-leaning Tribune, this is not a difficult conclusion to reach. We readily dismiss the term “pro-life”: as the duty editor sometimes observes, “everyone’s pro-life”. Over at Fox News and the Daily Mail, the opposite view is taken and the phrase is in widespread use. So the decision for a BBC style guide editors must have been very sensitive. Indeed, forced to make the best of the bitter rhetoric that surrounds an angry issue, they might have opened themselves to an accusation of  bias. But what would be the alternative? Only to adopt the other side’s terms and opt for framing the debate as “pro-abortion” versus “pro-life”, alienating a different group of licence-fee payers just as much.

Judicious evenhandedness is an admirable approach to journalism, but the straight and narrow way has an awkward habit of narrowing to a point in the trickiest areas. Reading the style guide, it is impossible to doubt the BBC’s essential fairness and good conscience. But when there’s no middle ground, everyone’s forced to pick a side.

Will likely stoush Thursday

10 Jan

This week on Words That Look to Have a Bright Future in Global Anglophone News:

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“Stoush” (AUSTRALIAN/NZ informal, verb hit; fight with; noun a brawl or other fight) is a new one on me, but not on the Tribune: our Sydney newsroom has used it hundreds of times since opening four years ago. It’s another example, remarked upon before in this blog, of how newspapers with multiple newsrooms end up speaking multiple dialects of English under the same masthead: a phenomenon that is proving difficult for style guides to control.

This is all, of course, completely unintentional: the globalisation of newsroom English happens not through any assertion of national identity, but because, in their country of origin, striking words sound entirely unremarkable. Colourful local expressions are not colourful in their own environment; it takes a stranger – such as a voracious news consumer from another country – to remark on their peculiarity.

Here in London, for example, it is surprising to learn that “gone missing”, a phrase any UK journalist would use without thinking, is a pungent and unfamiliar Britishism to American ears. Equally, I am sure, the Tribune’s New York office little suspects that standard Stateside journalese like this

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sounds as alien to Britons as “stoush” does to everyone in the northern hemisphere.

Except of course that, given the exposure that internet news affords, who knows what the mysterious action of language change might make familiar? Although the employment of days of the week as adjectives, and the term “ouster” to mean “dismissal”, still sound very foreign to British ears, the use of “likely” where a British-English speaker would only say “probably” seems to be becoming distinctly more common.

The Collins Dictionary still takes a disapproving line on this for its core audience:

Likely as an adverb is preceded by another, intensifying adverb, as in “it will very likely rain” or “it will most likely rain”. Its use without an intensifier, as in “it will likely rain” is regarded as unacceptable by most users of British English, though it is common in colloquial US English.

But it seems that events may be outpacing that advice. The phrase appears hundreds of times, perhaps predictably, on the Daily Mail’s multinational home page, and even the briefest of Google searches for “will likely” on BBC News reveals well over a dozen uses of it in the organisation’s own voice over the last two years, including entirely domestic stories on constituency boundaries in Islington and the future of the BBC licence fee.

It has even started appearing, remarkably, in the business pages of the Daily Telegraph, perhaps subconsciously influenced by the Canadian governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, who has begun incorporating it into his briefings.

There is, by contrast, not a single instance of “ouster” in BBC news output so far. But, intriguingly, there are two for “stoush” already.