Friday, 26 September 2014

headline news

With the advent of online editions of national newspapers, the art of writing succinct headlines appears to be in decline. Thirty years ago, Britain’s Sun newspaper employed subeditors whose only function was to write the headlines for which the paper became famous, but it may be that a different allocation of labour brought about by the online revolution now makes this a less efficient use of resources.

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:
I’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.
Whether 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.


  1. 40 years ago, Michael Frayn wrote a novel about a computer programmed to write newspaper headlines. It came up with the following:-
    and so forth. Surveys suggested that most people thought these headlines actually meant something

    1. The output of a computer programmed to write headlines would only be as good as the program that was used Peter, so I wonder what criteria it was given that produced such a horror.


    Check this out ha ha

    1. Very amusing Keith. I’m not surprised they chose to lampoon the Daily Mail, which may well be the worst national newspaper in the UK.

  3. Then there was the time footballer Eric Cantona attacked an opposition supporter
    'The S!it Hits the Fan'

    1. I don’t remember that one, but it seems appropriate.

  4. Amazing! This blog looks exactly like my old one!
    It's on a entirely different subject but it has pretty much the same
    page layout and design. Wonderful choice of colors!

    1. Thank you for saying so. I really appreciate your comment.


Please leave a comment if you have time, even if you disagree with the opinions expressed in this post, although you must expect a robust defence of those opinions if you choose to challenge them. Anonymous comments will not be accepted.