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Today’s incomprehensible headline

Par souci de briéveté, les titres de journeaux cultivent un laconisme qui frôle parfois l’incompréhensibilité. Ce phénomène est particulièrement évident en anglais, où en rencontre parfois un joli imbroglio sémantico-syntaxique.

  • 2004-08-27

This is the third time the following has happened to me. I see a particularly obscure headline in the feed aggregator I use for reading news and blogs (Bloglines — I am quite happy with the service) and of course hasten to blog it. But checking the original on the news outlet’s site leads to an article with a different, usually quite understandable title. Do they think they are going to escape this blogger’s sharp-nailed keyboard-striking fingertips? They won’t any longer.

Today’s confusion arises from the headline Pole seals walk treble. “Furry maritime critters living right on the pole?” I wonder. “Walking funny?” No, as it turns out. The BBC article in question talks about the men’s race walk results at the Olympics. Still, I am not sure how it is possible to seal a hat-trick.

The problem with English (in headlines, not in general) is that you don’t necessarily know if a word is a verb, a noun or an adjective if syntactic clues are missing or sparse. And semantically inspired guesses can lead you up (or down?) the garden path, in particular if you try to combine the words into compound nouns. The Guardian, by the way, admits to Landmine claims dog UK arms firm. Ouch.

Update: Either I am finicky or headline writers are producing a lot of stange ones lately. The readers of eweek are probably sufficiently familiar with the Microsoft-Linux FUD saga to be able to decode this article’s title Microsoft Dismisses British Objections to Anti-Linux Ad. Still, three negatives in a row are a bit much. And in the US people are now being inundated wtih the same scare stories about retirement pay we’ve been plagued with in Europe for years. (Please don’t believe everything you’re told. It’s a calculation about how many people and companies pay how much into the pool and how many people take out how much. Yes, rates may have to be raised; but not by more than they have been over similar periods in the past. Reducing unemployment and improving pay would help a lot.) News outlets seem to have some problems framing this, too: Greenspan-Aged Population to Hit Finances and Greenspan warns on ageing threat is how Reuters and the BBC present the issue, respectively. If the threat just ages fast enough it might die of natural causs before the entire popluation is terrified of the future.

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