A violent ambiguity

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.

Stan Carey - Baboro hits its teens - headline

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, movescalls, 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.

13 Responses to A violent ambiguity

  1. Wouldn’t “Baboró turns thirteen” be a little more sensible? And it uses the same amount of space.
    One of the things I dislike most about a lot of Irish (and UK) news media is the use of overly emotive words in headlines. Dislike becomes outrage, disapproval becomes fury, and slight sadness over the death of a celebrity becomes mourning. It’s lazy and manipulative journalism, methinks.

  2. Stan says:

    Doubtful: Yes, that would be a much clearer and equally economical headline. I agree with you about the emotive quality of many headlines. (I used the same word in a first draft of my post.) Almost everything seems fair game for a spot of sensationalism, regardless of the suitability of this strategy. In its favour, it can be amusing, but it also signifies a fundamental distrust of readers’ ability to decide for themselves how to react to a story. That, or headline writers have simply forgotten how effective plain language can be. (“SENTENCE FIRST IN ‘TABLOIDESE’ SLAM SHOCKER”)

  3. It also reduces the power of the words. If you use fury to describe disapproval, what do you use when you’re actually furious? Or do you just say “I was really, really, really furious”? Or “I was f***** furious”?

  4. Claudia says:

    I’ve noticed the same use of sensationalism in many blogs’headlines for posts which often prove not at all what they announced and disappointingly boring. I’ll except both D.E. and you.

  5. Stan says:

    Doubtful: Another good point, and something I’ve mulled over from time to time. I can do no better than to quote Anthony Burgess, whose penultimate paragraph in Language Made Plain includes the following:

    “[I]f we cannot really resist change, we can resist inflation, that debasement of language which is the saddest and most dangerous phenomenon of a world dominated by propaganda-machines, whether religious, political, or commercial. Propaganda always lies, because it over-states a case, and the lies tend more and more to reside in the words used, not in the total propositions made out of those words. A ‘colossal’ film can only be bettered by a ‘super-colossal’ one; soon the hyperbolic forces ruin all meaning. If moderately tuneful pop songs are described as ‘fabulous’, what terms can be used to evaluate Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony?”

    Burgess goes on the say that a “deep and dark hell” is reserved for the “cynical inflators”. Although I wouldn’t go that far (and if I did I would be inclined to use other terms), I do subscribe to his essential point, which matches yours: inflation reduces the power of words. It cheapens them and adds force to the gravitational lurch towards mediocrity and unmeaning. To borrow your example: if there is “fury” and “rage” over, say, minute changes to a bus timetable, what emotion shall we say Lear felt at his angriest?

    Claudia: Alas, it’s a sign of the times. With everyone clamouring for attention, be it in the form of unit sales or web traffic, the temptation exists to push one’s position into the realm of hyperbole. Even-handed assessment is less appealing to many readers, whose buttons are more predictably pushed by a shrill, zero-tolerant attitude. But if you catch me straying into blatant sensationalism, I’ll thank you to upbraid me for it!

  6. Claudia says:

    I will, Sir!

    Thank you for the quotation. I intend to get Language Made Plain to learn how to avoid inflation. If I go to hell at all, I would want it to be for more interesting sins than words exaggerations.

    This post brings to my mind Cyrano de Bergerac:La Tirade du Nez where Edmond Rostand describes a long nose with (at least) a dozen humourous, inflated comments. You could read the translation on Google if you wish. It’s priceless!

  7. Claudia says:

    I should have said that, even if you might be tempted once to sensationalise a headline, not one of your posts would ever be boring and disappointing.

    Sincerely yours.

  8. Stan says:

    ‘If I go to hell at all, I would want it to be for more interesting sins than words exaggerations.’

    Me too, Claudia! The above quote from Language Made Plain is the only place in the book where Burgess writes about inflation, so I wouldn’t recommend it as a guide to avoiding overdone prose. It is, however, a very enjoyable and practical survey of the sounds, structures and similarities of various languages, paying due reference to their historical development and native literature.

    I took your advice and found a translation of Cyrano de Bergerac – by Anthony Burgess! – on Google Books. It’s marvellous; I laughed along with it. The scene is justly famed, but until this evening I had only seen film versions of it, three of them, without ever reading the source. Thank you for the cultural education! I hope some day to read the rest of the play.

    And thank you for the lovely comment. On reflection I realise that I do sensationalise my material now and then (“The Cannibals of Galway”, for example, and “Attack of the 100 Foot Tissue”), but with tongue placed firmly in cheek.

  9. Sean Jeating says:

    [Smiling about this and that]
    Great observation – in particular and … in general.

    Yes. The (felt) need to exaggerate/hyperbolise.
    Well. And the need to fill the head(line) properly.

    Plus: the increasing trend to subtantivise [?]

    Last not least: It is most difficult to vary / surpass (everything) what has (already) been said, (before).

    Off topic? Once I offered a photo of a little girl helping a blind man crossing the street. Great poto Sean. – 30 minutes later there was a bank robbery with hostage taking.
    Guess which photo would have been taken.

    Another aspect. The headline would – f.e. be:
    Sinn Fein – Agreement with Ulster Defence Party

    46 characters. However, you do – for whatever reason – only have 21 characters.
    Thus the headline might be(come):
    SF and UDP compromise

    Wish I could make it clear. Sometimes a “hack” has to play with words. Often s/he would not have much time to decide. And …
    … next morning s/he would not like the chosen title.

    Ha! What am I doing here?
    Defending the, or at least some of the journos.

    Journos is thought to mean journalists, hm?

    What if “journos” is two characters too much?
    F.e. in the headline “Journos are stupid”
    Two characters less we need? Hm. Hm. Ah!
    “Hacks are stupid”.

    No. Not at all.
    Everything both D.E. and you mention was fair and just critizising.
    So, what to do when “agreement” contains four letters more than “pact”?
    I do not have the answer.

    Conclusion:
    As (almost) always: An interesting (not to say very interesting) post, Stan.
    You are right. You are right. Wish I knew how to make it better … better for the (average) reader who – perhaps – meanwhile has learnt to read agreement for pact etc.,and who would be puzzled when being “forced”, again to learn reading a newspaper properly.

    The peace of the night.

  10. Stan says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Sean. We need not compromise nor make a pact to agree substantially with each other!

    It is not just journos and hacks who play with words then regret their choices. I recently wrote a post entitled “Crash blossoms up the garden path”, which I subsequently wished I had called “Crash blossoms on the garden path”. Indulging a blogger’s editorial flexibility I changed it before I fell asleep, intending to add a note of explanation in the morning, but instead I guiltily changed it back to the less desirable original.

    There is no moral to this story, just an illustration of universal fallibility and the lucky fact that I write this blog to no deadlines. I didn’t have a major point to make with my post, except to draw attention to a careless lapse such as we all suffer, and to see if it prompted any discussion. Doubtful’s proposed re-write (“Baboró turns thirteen”) would have been perfect. The headline could have been shorter still had they used numerals, and could have been rendered unambiguously in several ways.

    Although my post and the subsequent discussion focused on sensational headlinese, the offending idiom isn’t really of that ilk. It almost certainly wasn’t written with any cynical motive. I didn’t make that plain enough. The phrase “hits its teens” is in my experience more commonly used to refer to people hitting older decades of their lives, e.g. he hit his 40s, she hit her 50s. In these instances there is no possibility of misinterpretation, because the years referred to can only be years. “Teens” is different, and therefore demands more attention, the more so when one talks or writes of “hitting” them. In headlines there is a far greater possibility of unfortunate ambiguity, hence the need for greater care.

  11. Sean Jeating says:

    Ah, Stan, I did not and don’t disagree, at all, just wrote down some thoughts coming to my mind, of which I thought they could add to what you three had already mentioned.
    Perhaps I put my last paragraph miunderstandable. What I intended to say: I see no solution, no way, how this phenomenon can be changed for the better: both the ambition to create bombastic headlines (even if it’s about the very anniversary of the rabbit breeder association in Ballyvaughan) and the partly felt, partly real pressure to do so.
    To a certain point there does also exist a correlation with the reader’s expections, or what many ‘media makers’ think are – or ought to be :) – reader’s expections.

    … A wide field …

  12. Stan says:

    I think we agree more or less entirely, Sean. In my previous comments I may have neglected to distinguish sufficiently between the problem with the headline in question (an apparent lapse in awareness?) and the problems with headlines generally (sensationalism, cynicism, scare-mongering, simplification, decontextualisation, etc.).

    Some of the latter extend far beyond headlinese. Your example of the relative appeal of certain photos is a case in point: why are people so attracted to tales of crime, tragedy and horror? (Luckily for my readers, this is not the place for my ideas on that subject.) As you noted, the relationship between reader and publisher is not necessarily one of unblemished purity, sanity, and mutual health! The Jam put the tangle well: “the public gets what the public wants . . . and the public wants what the public gets”. It is perhaps instructive to compare this interdependent cycle of influence with the tendency to blame “society” for the world’s ills and one’s own, without acknowledging one’s own role in that same fuzzily defined entity. Which brings us to your question of how to deal with the matter.

    Off the top of my head I would suggest education and training, both self-directed and imported, to include critical awareness, analytical assessment, bullshit detection, personal responsibility, and so on. (A wide field, as you acknowledge.) This is partly why I am so critical of certain language forms: because to resist accepting implicit assumptions requires deliberate deconstruction of explicit assertions. We are influenced by what we read, whether or not we agree with it, in ways that we’re not always conscious of; dissecting language can be part of a useful strategy of immunisation against its misuse, either by oneself or by others. (Here’s a recent example.)

    The chances of confusion or overstatement may be negligible when language is used merely to report on rabbit breeding in Ballyvaughan, to borrow your exemplary example, but then again I might have said the same thing last week about Baboró’s birthday. As I have written on my “About” page: words are powerful tools and deserve careful use; that goes double for anyone who uses them in a public and professional capacity.

  13. […] Artikel “A violent ambiguity” beschäftigt sich Carey beispielsweise mit der sprachlichen Doppeldeutigkeit folgender […]

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