News website headline noun pile-up amusement

A common characteristic of headlinese — the form of English used in news headlines — is the presence of noun pile-ups (aka noun piles, noun clusters, noun stacks, etc.). The BBC excels at them, offering many modest pile-ups every day, and occasionally a more eye-catching example.

Browsing the site yesterday, I saw among its “most read” stories a teaser that was simultaneously horrific and hilarious: “Sausage baby death woman jailed”. Upon clicking through, the headline grew, and became a little clearer:

The syntax may be dubious, but the sad and gruesome gist of the “Slough sausage choke baby death woman jailed” story is easy to guess from these seven words, and the bizarre juxtapositions in this keyword-heavy phrase probably enticed a few readers who might not have been tempted by a blander headline (or “hed”, in journalist jargon). It may seem like tabloidese, but the convention is well established in reputable news agencies, especially with developing stories that presume some familiarity on the part of the reader.

The press on this side of the Atlantic indulge in headline noun pile-ups much more than their American counterparts. Headsup: the blog, which monitors these matters closely, observed that “British hed writers can pull an attributive noun across a lot more barriers than we can [in the U.S.]”, and notes an exception in the Rupert-Murdoch-owned foxnews.com, which offers such far-out formulations as “Pregnant frying pan attack teen surrenders”. Language Log considers the transatlantic difference a sociological and linguistic puzzle.

You might say, hed noun pile-up geography difference puzzle.

18 Responses to News website headline noun pile-up amusement

  1. Fran says:

    I SAW that one, and thought EXACTLY what you’ve thought! I love it. Doesn’t it make them adjectivals in the end?

  2. Looking at that example just makes my hed hurt, Stan!

  3. Tim says:

    What’s a slough sausage?

    I didn’t get the headline until I read that other one from Foxnews about the frying pan. Then it all fell into place. Everything that precedes “woman” describes the woman that was jailed. You could say the group of nouns works as a noun-group adjective cluster.

    Oh headlines! So silly sometimes.

  4. That headline’s almost like automatic poetry, or word salad, isn’t it? Obviously, “woman jailed after baby’s death in Slough” (same number of words) doesn’t cram in enough information… It’s even more ungainly than the”frying pan” headline: at least if that was written as “Pregnant frying-pan-attack teen surrenders” it would make immediate sense.

  5. Aidan says:

    Bizarrely I understood the headline straight away. I guess that studying in England in 1990s when The Sun was de rigueur even among my fellow university students had an unexpected benefit. My tolerance for compound descriptors is obviously too well developed ;-)
    On a side note I notice that all involved in the case were Polish. My (Polish) wife was hospitalized when she was a baby because she had been fed a kielbasa sausage by an errant uncle. It defies logic but some adults jus don’t think about what they putiing in kids’ mouths.

  6. Stan says:

    Fran: Does that make us the BBC’s ideal readership, or its dreaded one? And yes, all the words before “woman” are adjectivals.

    Jams: Let’s hope it doesn’t develop into a cluster headache!

    Tim: Yes, everything before “woman” modifies it. The less familiar someone is with this particular headline style, the stranger it probably seems.

    Doubtful: I agree, it’s like a tossed salad of keywords. Your rewrite, with its prepositions and near-normal syntax, is more like U.S. headline style. Hyphens would confer a great deal of clarity, but they seem anathema to headlinese.

    Aidan: Not so bizarre, I think. It was immediately apparent to me too (“gist of the […] story is easy to guess”), presumably from habituation to the compound-adjectival style. Let’s consider it a skill!

    Even allowing for different cultural customs, it’s surely wise to refrain from feeding babies anything not explicitly approved by the parents. I had a conversation on and off over the weekend about the suitability of lollipops for babies on aeroplanes, and heard a variety of parental attitudes.

  7. wisewebwoman says:

    All those nouns strung together look like Google on steroids.
    XO
    WWW

  8. Stan says:

    WWW: It’s true, they do. Great Googly muddly!

  9. peacay says:

    Nounjectives; hence: nounjectorrhoea

  10. Stan says:

    A fine coinage, peacay! Maybe that’s why it’s called a hed.

  11. John Cowan says:

    Actually the deliberate misspelling hed was originally used to reliably distinguish between handwritten insertions into copy and instructions written on the copy. Thus a scribbled Head to come would be taken as part of the text and inserted into it by the compositor, whereas Hed to kum (or H.T.K.) would be taken by the compositor as an instruction to save room for a headline to be supplied later. Similarly with graf and lede. Later generations of journalists didn’t understand this distinction between metalanguage and object language, and started to use the misspellings as a mere mark of insider-ness; then they spread into the usage of non-journalists writing about journalism.

  12. Stan says:

    Mea culpa. Thank you for the helpful historical summary, John.

  13. Jeff says:

    Today we have “Rugby lip slice doctor”. There seems to be a department at the BBC that specialises in these things.

  14. Stan says:

    Jeff: The BBC seems to have a propensity and a talent for them. “Rugby lip slice doctor” reminds me of “canoe wife”, from a discussion at Language Log about bizarre noun–noun compounds that presuppose inside knowledge.

  15. […] He said the use of ‘slashed’ in the headline was confusing, and I agreed — even accounting for the bizarre form of headline-grammar where nouns act as adjectives until you get nonsense like “Slough sausage choke baby death woman jai…. […]

  16. […] written before about noun pileups, where nouns pile up to form strange or baffling strings, typically in headlines, such as “Slough […]

  17. fenambulist says:

    There’s a sevener on BBC News this morning:

    “Protest over Milford Haven School charity head shave boy”

  18. Stan says:

    fenambulist: Thanks for the example! Charity head shave boy also counts as what Arnold Zwicky calls a “distant compound“.

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