The atomic theory of sub-headings

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A disturbing article in the Sunday Times of 26 April 2009 has the following heading and sub-heading:

Stan Carey - Sunday Times - blow to atoms

There is no easy way to describe what happens to human bodies destroyed with bombs. The very idea is sickening and grotesque, yet it happens, and it requires description. The article calls it pulverisation, which has a similar meaning to atomisation but can also commonly mean grinding or pounding, as in food preparation when one pulverises grains, herbs, or meat. These additional connotations could mislead a reader upon first glance, and pulverisation is quite a technical word, hence the scare quotes in the heading and the elegant variation of “blow captives to atoms” in the sub-heading.

There are several phrases with the form blow [object] to . . . . You could describe something being blown to pieces, to bits, or to smithereens, and raise neither eyebrows nor – if the object is inanimate – objections. Blow . . . to pieces and blow . . . to bits may be too grisly for a broadsheet newspaper to use in the context of human violence. Blow . . . to smithereens is too slangy for formal use; it is used in a quote further on in the Times article, and is the kind of vernacular phrase found in boys adventure comics. Blow . . . to kingdom come (i.e. “to heaven”, “to the next world”) is too idiomatic.

Though there is evident difficulty in deciding which words are most appropriate for formal use, blow . . . to atoms still seems an odd choice to me, and not just because I have a scientific background. It may have been selected by elimination, as a relatively neutral and quasi-scientific term. Reducing the phrase to destroy would sidestep many of the problems listed, but perhaps destroy was not specific or sensational enough. Pulverise is equally direct but has the problems mentioned above. Is there an accurate and tactful alternative? It’s a tricky one.

2 Responses to The atomic theory of sub-headings

  1. It’s a rather grisly topic to discuss, which make the need for both accuracy and tact important. Would something like: “Russian death squads destroy evidence of atrocity – Elite commandos reveal [I think the “broken their silence” is redundant; if we already knew the fact, they wouldn’t be revealing it] how they obliterated the physical remains of Chechen torture victims.” I’d agree that ‘pulverise’ is really misleading, as the phrase is often used to describe the effect of bombing cities rather than people. And ‘blown to atoms’ is also inaccurate, as presumably (places pedant’s hat on head) the physical remains of the victims were not literally reduced to their constituent atoms, just rendered unrecognisable (and I do hope that this is not coming across as if I’m making light of the matter; nothing could be further from my intent. But as I said above, respect for the victims of such barbarity behoves us to be accurate in our description.)

  2. Stan says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Doubtful. As well as being a cookery term, pulverise pops up in boxing reports and appears in rugby, athletics and economic contexts – so it can refer to people without implying their destruction. I have no problem with it in the heading above because the scare quotes alert a reader to its vernacular or technical use, and the article explains precisely what it means in the context.

    Blown to atoms is the phrase I wanted to draw particular attention to, because I think it is bizarre and inappropriate in the context. As you say, bomb victims are not reduced to atoms. But I think “broke their silence” is fine, because the Times want to let readers know that the commandos’ testimony is “the first of its kind to a foreign journalist”.

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