Hacks Slash Word Length.

An amusing Guardian piece by Andy Bodle lauds the concision of headlinese but pans its extension into the body of newspaper stories:

And with all of this, by and large, I am quite at ease. Most of the time, the meaning of headlines is quite clear (to native English speakers, anyway). They generally achieve their aim of provoking interest without misrepresenting the facts too grievously. Moreover, they’re almost the last bastion of many vigorous Old English words. Where else these days, outside a Will Self novel, will you find ire, dub, jibe, rue and mar?

What’s a little more concerning is the way that some of these thinnernyms are now seeping into the articles themselves. Journalese is borrowing with increasing regularity from headlinese. […]

Thinnernym creep isn’t an unalloyed disaster. The word “rig”, for example, has become the standard term to refer to unfair collusion in elections and markets, and to my mind it’s more expressive than “manipulate”. And in some types of article, such as comment pieces and sketches, colloquial terms are preferable. However, it does have its problems. […]

It ends with the Thinnernymicon, “a guide, whose purpose is threefold: a) to remind journos of the proper English term; b) to remind editors of the shorter alternatives they can use in headlines; and c) to serve as a translation service.” Most are transatlantic, but some are UK-only, like “Dodgy = underhand, corrupt” and “Lag = convict, prisoner.” Thanks, Paul!


  1. Comments are closed there, but “quite clear (to native English speakers, anyway)” should be “quite clear (to native English speakers in the UK who regularly read, hear, or see the news, anyway)”.

  2. How true is this?

    “You might counter that noun modifiers are everywhere in English. Well, yes, they are now, but they were quite rare before the 20th century, and only started flooding the language in the 1950s and 60s, when tabloids came to prominence.”

  3. With one more letter the Daily Mirror’s HARRY NAKED ROMP could have been HARRY’S NAKED ROMP or HARRY ROMPS NAKED, so why is this style preferred? I wonder how long a sentence or paragraph of unlinked words could become before it becomes hard to understand. Andy Bodle seems to think non-native English speakers might find it difficult, but surely it’s ideal for them: imagine how much simpler it would be to learn German if the word endings didn’t change.

  4. (I now see that what the Mirror’s headline means is HARRY: NAKED ROMP. They eliminated the punctuation.)

  5. Reminds me of the old chestnut about the lunatic who escapes from the insane asylum, runs across the street into a commercial laundry, and there rapes one of its employees. The headline: Nut Bolts, Screws Washer.

  6. This reddit feed, prompted by the immortal (but apocryphal) “Foot Heads Arms Body” (=Michael Foot Appointed to Nuclear Disarmament Committee), has many contributions, apocryphal and not, of fun with headlinese, much of it from UK sources:

  7. Oh, “thinnernym” – it works a lot better if you’re non-rhotic.

  8. Apparently ‘dodgy’ is no longer UK-only. The author of the blog Separated By A Common Language has chosen it as her US-to-UK Word of the Year: http://separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.com/2014/12/2014-uk-to-us-co-word-of-year-gap-year.html

  9. Sorry, linked to the wrong (though equally interesting) post above. Here’s the link to ‘dodgy’:

  10. I think “lag” is usually used as “old lag” – someone who has been in prison many times. The online dictionaries, presumably copying from each other, all say it is “old fashioned” but I would contest that.

  11. I was wondering about the origin of “lag” in that sense; the OED (entry from 1901) says it’s from the verb “lag” 1.”To carry off, steal” (two cites, both from the same 1573 book), 2. “To transport or send to penal servitude” — but the latter is first attested in 1819 (J. H. Vaux New Vocab. Flash Lang. in Mem. 185 Lag, to transport for seven years or upwards), from the same slang dictionary as the noun (J. H. Vaux New Vocab. Flash Lang. in Mem. 185 Lag, a convict under sentence of transportation), so that’s no help. The AHD says “Origin unknown.”

  12. I used to think an “ex-con” was a former con-man rather than a former convict. This was confusing in police procedurals where the ex-con was a dumb brute rather than a smooth shark.

  13. @mollymooly: I had the same misapprehension when I was a kid! In my case, I can trace the misunderstanding to an unclear explanation my mother gave when I asked her what the word meant.

  14. J. W. Brewer says

    “Dodgy” doesn’t sound that markedly British to me, although I can’t say I’ve seen it in U.S. headlinese, even in the tabloid subdialect. I guess modern AmEng does have “sketchy” to cover most of the same semantic ground, which if anything ought to reduce the felt need for a new import. The most opaquely British items on the list to my eye were the aforementioned “lag” as well as “slag off.” Perhaps the rhyme is just a coincidence? Not sure how that usage of “slag” does or doesn’t relate to the various non-AmEng pejorative senses of the noun “slag” as listed at http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/slag#Noun.

  15. JW: Sketchy doesn’t correspond to dodgy, afaik. Or at least in BrEng where sketchy is something that is very incomplete – a sketch, e.g. a very incomplete description of something – whereas dodgy is something that is definitely very dubious. “That’s a dodgy corner” – its difficult/dangerous to drive around, while “very dodgy” means you feel relieved to get around it on one piece. “Dodgy bit of overtaking” , etc.

  16. That’s how Young People Today use “sketchy” over here: something that is definitely very dubious.

  17. J. W. Brewer says

    Yeah, or at least the Young[er] People Today. My impressionistic sense is that the “highly dubious” sense of “sketchy” is more common among Americans in their thirties or younger than in my (late forties) cohort and has become markedly more common over the last decade or two. Although I haven’t done any serious corpus research to validate that impressionistic sense. http://rt.com/usa/179636-reporters-robbed-sketchy-neighborhood-app/ is a recent wacky news story illustrating this usage. There’s also (won’t post link to avoid formatting problems) a Wall St. Journal advice column addressing the reader question “How Can I Avoid Buying a Sketchy Car?” As to neighborhood, “sketchy” mostly conveys “increased risk of crime”; as to cars “increased risk of mechanical/maintenance problems.” As to people I think it needn’t necessarily convey a propensity for violence or dishonesty but at a minimum unreliability and perhaps unsuitability for some particular role that is salient in context, which could be anything from someone you might want to avoid hiring for a particular job to someone you might want to avoid forming a romantic relationship with.

  18. My impression is that dumping “and” for a comma is a US-only headline practice. “Guard dead, two others wounded in shooting”. The NY Times in particular seems very fond of initial subclauses and the word “mulls” meaning “to consider”. “In Pointless Op-Ed, Overpaid Blowhard Mulls Problems Of Racism”.

  19. I read that op-ed! I thought Blowhard did an excellent job of weighing the merits of each side and coming to a satisfying lack of conclusion.

  20. David Marjanović says

    Day saved. 🙂

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