In a local newspaper yesterday I saw what appeared at first to be an alarming story. After a moment’s stunned disbelief – this was before my morning tea – the subhead provided an innocent explanation: Ireland’s flagship children’s festival, Baboró, is celebrating its thirteenth year.
Owing to time constraints I will not address the typographic shortcomings in the digital version of this article, except to mention in passing that – in the reproduced subhead – the words children’s and festival are unnecessarily capitalised, the accent (síneadh fada) in Baboró is missing, and there is a good case for inserting a comma immediately after it.
What struck me, if you’ll pardon the pun, is the queasy ambiguity of the headline. In a newspaper context it is, of course, understandable: headlinese is a language unto itself, one that prizes punchy monosyllabicity above all. Agreements become pacts, disagreements become clashes; increases become hikes; decreases become cuts; an investigation is a probe; to punish is to rap; to support is to back; to criticise is to blast or slam; and everywhere are bans, rows, bids, leaks, shifts, shocks, pleas, moves, calls, vows and threats of all sorts. Whatever you are doing, you can be said to act. And so on.
But this tendency to use the shortest and sharpest possible word sometimes comes at the cost of intelligibility, and sometimes at the cost of good judgement. The word Baboró might not mean much to some readers, especially if you are not Irish or based in Ireland, but to me it connotes “children’s arts festival” and immediately conjures up images of the kind of child- and family-oriented cultural events for which the festival is renowned.
This information underlines the unfortunate ambiguity of the headline. Maybe recent events have sensitised me to certain interpretations of the juxtaposed words “hit” and “teens”, but when my eyes scanned the page, my first (pre-caffeine) reaction was not to assume that something or someone had reached its thirteenth year.
To conclude: full credit to the newspaper for spreading the word about the festival, and continued good wishes to everyone involved in Baboró, but please, to whom it concerns: try to parse your headlines with fresh eyes before committing them to print, if only for the sake of your more literal-minded readers.