Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Tabloid headline compound noun sensation

Writing about attributive nouns and noun compounds reminded me of one of the most striking characteristics of journalese, particularly tabloid journalese. When not indulging in wordplay or mysterious literary allusions, newspaper sub-editors will often construct headlines out of nothing but nouns.

These virtuoso displays of noun-compounding, although they bear very litle relation to everyday English, are delightfully efficient. Every word carries weight and meaning, making them perfect for squeezing as much information into headlines as possible. Sometimes, though, they are so compressed that you have to read the story to find out what the headline means, making them more like teasers than summaries.

Here are a couple of examples from Saturday's Sun:

Harry jury time plea
(Harry+jury) + (time+plea)

Two noun compounds - "Harry jury", meaning the jury trying a teenager who poured bleach over somebody's head during the screening of a Harry Potter film, and "time plea", meaning "request for more time to consider a verdict", bolted together to make a single noun compound.

UKIP vid "leak" rap
((UKIP+vid) + leak) + rap

This is built up in a slightly different way. "UKIP vid" is the first noun compound - meaning the video of a prospective UKIP MEP being interviewed. "Leak" is added onto the end to make a new compound meaning the posting of that video on YouTube. Finally, "rap" is added to make a third compound, referring to the court ruling that UKIP must compensate the candidate for posting the video.

The Mirror offers this example:

Pope abuse sympathy
Pope + (abuse+sympathy)

In this case, the primary noun compound comes at the end - "abuse sympathy", meaning "sympathy for victims of abuse". This is modified by "Pope", so it means "Pope's sympathy for victims of abuse".

Tabloid headlines also use noun compounds as shorthand for referring to people in the news. The rather depressing selection from my copy of The Sun includes: "Maddie cop"; "acid girl" (girl who survived an acid attack, although it could equally refer to a girl involved in making, taking or selling LSD); "carjack brute"; "tot death ma"; "drug dad"; "Guy pal" (friend of Guy Ritchie) and "porn Sir".

Update: Language Log has several entertaining posts on this topic: here, here and here.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. great post! The mysterious angry hieroglyphs in the Sun are awesome to follow, like a Hieronymous Bosch painting. Lots of little squirming, kicking and biting things on a great canvas.

  3. You ought to be careful with that "abuse offered by the Pope", it may be actionable (and you a good Catholic girl too).

  4. Dogberry - thanks for pointing that out. I have clarified, since it was just that ambiguity I think it is so important to avoid.

  5. How does one become a "porn Sir"? This might be my only chance of a knighthood.