The rules for writing headlines are simple: never use a long word if a shorter word is available; and if a word can be cut out without affecting the meaning, then it should be cut. Obviously, any ill-judged application of the second rule has the potential to create ambiguity, but it is the first rule, and what it tells us about the lexicon available to the headline writers, that is the more interesting, particularly given that the shorter word that is used may not match the meaning of the longer word precisely.
In the language of headlines, any type of embargo, exclusion, injunction, interdiction, prevention, prohibition or proscription becomes a ban; any constraint, containment, demarcation, limitation or restriction becomes a cap; any abatement, contraction, curtailment, decrement, devaluation, downgrade, diminution, discount or shrinkage becomes a cut; any kind of accommodation, accord, agreement, bargain, compromise, concession, settlement, transaction or understanding becomes a deal; any kind of disparity, distinction, divergence, inconsistency or incongruity becomes a gap; any type of appointment, assignment, calling, career, employment, enterprise, occupation, profession, undertaking or vocation becomes a job; and any altercation, antagonism, argument, controversy, difference of opinion, disagreement, squabble or vendetta becomes a row. It will be seen at once that the short word isn’t always quite the right word, but that doesn’t seem to matter to the headline writers, whose aim is to have their creations set in the largest possible type.
Adjectives are not favoured by headline writers, although something that might be described as colossal, enormous, gargantuan, gigantic, humongous, immense or massive in other circumstances will be described as merely big, or possibly huge, in a newspaper headline. At the same time, anything that is abominable, defective, deleterious, dreadful, horrendous, horrible, imperfect, substandard, terrible, unacceptable or unsatisfactory would simply be bad.
There is another aspect to the writing of headlines, much favoured by Britain’s redtops, and that is the use of word play, including puns, rhymes, alliteration and assonance. Cultural references are also common—even the BBC, on its website, isn’t immune to this kind of headline. Although many such headlines are teeth-grindingly awful, I’ll conclude with two famous headlines from the Sun’s sports pages.
In 2000, Inverness Caledonian Thistle (affectionately known as ‘Cally’ by the team’s supporters) defeated Celtic, one of the powerhouses of Scottish football, 3–1 in a Scottish FA Cup match. Celtic were playing on their home ground, and Inverness were two leagues below Celtic in the Scottish football hierarchy. The Sun’s report on the match carried the following headline:
SUPER CALLYI’d always remembered this headline as ‘…CELTIC WERE ATROCIOUS’, but it seems to have been plagiarized from a Liverpool Echo headline from the 1970s, when Liverpool forward Ian Callaghan produced a man-of-the-match performance to defeat Queen’s Park Rangers. The headline in that case read ‘SUPER CALLY GOES BALLISTIC QPR ATROCIOUS’. Although I’ve suggested plagiarism, the use of ‘are’ instead of ‘were’ to report on something that happened in the past points to another possible explanation: that it was a kind of homage to the earlier headline.
While I would expect most Sun readers to pick up on the Mary Poppins reference, I’m not sure that those same readers would be sufficiently familiar with pre-imperial Roman history to understand the following headline, which appeared above the report on an FA Cup match between Leicester City and Wycombe Wanderers in 2001. Leicester were the home team, but Wycombe, a team that played its league football three divisions below Leicester, won 2–1.
WYCOMBEWhether the historical reference was understood or not, it seems that Wycombe’s fans have since appropriated the phrase to describe every victory away from home.