Headlines can help you decide whether to read an article. In very few words, a good headline will provide the right amount of detail for the reader to decide whether to read the article it tops or links to. Done well, headlines are sublime, and we should praise their writers for the tough job they sometimes have to do. Headlines can mislead, especially in the clickbait world of revenue generation. But is that really anything new?
My favourite headlines are those which make me think, chuckle, or are just a little too good with the word play. Whilst I do not wish to belittle the current ailment that keeps Prince Philip in hospital, the headline on the BBC website from 23rd February certainly had me thinking of more humorous interpretations.
One chuckle was:
Poor hospital, it’s got an infection too.
Why would an ailing Prince Philip stay in a hospital that was already infected?
Prince Philip gets to stay in a hospital with his friend, the infection in the bed next to him.
I wish Prince Philip a speedy and full recovery. He’s had a great innings of 99 so far. One more run and he receives an official telegram from his wife congratulating him on reaching 100 rather than a more traditional birthday card.
Headlines were not initially found in newspapers. Early editions of The Times show this well. Whilst you can see the number of different articles or advertisements, actually knowing what the article was about would not immediately be forthcoming until holding the newspaper in your hand and reading it. That involved the passing of money from the potential reader to the vendor. In order to facilitate the amount of money one newspaper could accumulate versus another, headlines appeared in the late 18th century as competition between the UK newspapers increased. Clickbait is not a new. It may be a new word, but it is a modern web-based equivalent of activities the press barons have been finessing since the late Victorian era.
Since then, headlines have not only encouraged sales but also much humour, word-play and head scratching.
Headline writers having fun and leaving the reader somewhat in disbelief.
Headline writers also like to play with words, as space is sometimes limited, words can get shortened, or slightly changed from their usual spellings (or meanings) to enhance the humour.
Moving on-line, courtesy of our friends in, of all places, Singapore. A country not known for its ‘gentle’ handling of drug related crime.
Lists of the greatest headlines of [insert period of your choice] exist. Search engines being your friend, go hunt some down. The BBC ran a poll in 2006 to identify memorable British newspaper front pages froma 100-year period. The problem with lists like these is that no one can really agree on their content. Whilst the front pages selected are certainly memorable, I feel a little deflated with a couple of the actual headlines. These need to be complete packages and not just memorials of significant events. The final list does show well how visually newspaper front pages have changed through that period.
My interpretation of the Prince Philip BBC headline differs from the headline writer wanted. There are many occasions, either deliberate or accidental, where headline writers end up delivering ambiguous copy. It has been happening for as long as headlines have been a part of the newspaper arsenal. Ever since “MacArthur Flies Back to Front” after the “Eighth Army Push Bottles Up Germans”, headline writers have walked the tightrope of hoping that readers don’t snigger at their efforts. Punctuation in headlines is sparse. With limited context available, the reader reads nouns as verbs and verbs as nouns. It’s easy to understand why ambiguity does creep in and much hilarity erupts from the page.
Ambiguous headlines are called ‘Crash Blossoms’. The name derived courtesy of the Testy Copy Editors web forum. The Japan Times in August 2009 published the above headline which was subsequently reworked to ‘Violinist shirks off her tragic image’. Until then, ambiguous headlines were not subject to a name or term. One fortunate person, with the appropriate surname of Bloom, suggested ‘Crash Blossoms’ very early in the web forum discussion and the name stuck.
Not sure what the Testy Copy Editors would have named ambiguous headlines, if the above was the headline provided: ‘Holy Grails’ or ‘Hot Potatoes’? Neither is pleasing, and crash blossom is an apt moniker. Crash gives the immediacy of something not going as expected. A loud noise. Freeze-frame recollection of key events. The big bold typeface of a headline? Blossom adds beauty and calm. The fleeting and delicate nature of petals matching the life-expectancy of a headline in someone’s memory. Today’s headline is tomorrow’s chip wrapper.
Hard to believe this ‘Clavin and Hobbes’ comic strip celebrates a 35th birthday today.
Time does indeed fly. Scouring the records, and apologies to the Polish and Canadian contingents of readers, of all the many, many important humans born on 24th February 1986, the only person who made the lists of being ‘really’ important was the Polish-Canadian ice hockey star, Wojtek Wolski. Some notable other births on 24th February include Steve Jobs in 1955, and very little else. The historical archives are blank and nothing of significance happened on 24th February 1986 either. Reading further back through the 24th February archives, the US Ice Hockey team won the gold medal at the 1980 Winter Olympics. Further back in 1949, Juan Perón’s first President of Argentina election win occurred. Even further back, in 1303, the English armies lost to the Scottish armies at the Battle of Roslin, in the First War of Scottish Independence. 24th February is a relative dud in the annals of history, but 1986 included many interesting events and births.
'Calvin and Hobbes’ has aged well. Times have changed, and pronouns today have jumped to the forefront of people’s thinking. To help Calvin out, pronouns are:
one of a class of words that serves to replace a noun phrase that has already been or is about to be mentioned in the sentence or context.
Does this iPhone belong to Sheila? No, it’s mine.
Two pronouns: one is ‘it’ (replacing the word ‘iPhone’) and the possessive pronoun ‘mine’.
Remember audience, humans tend to lazy. The Alpha Predator has reached the top of the food chain and now enjoys an eternal sunset G&T whilst kicked back, grazing on snacks and watching the world pass by… on Netflix. The world does not need pronouns. Check again the definition above - or go check another definition if the dear reader needs more convincing. In every case, the definition will refer to a pronoun replacing a noun. If good noun exists, why use a replacement word? Lazy, right?
Pronouns ensure humans remain lazy. If a person forgets a name, then rather than use a pronoun, remember the person’s name. People forget, but methods exist to train the brain to keep information for longer. Instead of being lazy and sedentary, train the little grey cells for peak performance. Otherwise, apologise for the loss of memory and ask for the person’s name again. Admit failings.
The training may be a struggle. Listed as one of the eight parts of speech by the Greeks in the treatise ‘The Art of Grammar’ (attributed to Dionysius Thrax), pronouns have existed for grammatical efficiency since the 2nd century BC. The word pronoun has been part of the English language since the mid-15th century. Pronouns have existed earlier than the documented first use of the word pronoun. The 14th century poet and author, Geoffrey Chaucer, used pronouns. Chaucer was also free wheeling with the singular use of ‘they’. A well quoted line from The Canterbury Tales:
And whoso fyndeth hym out of swich blame, They wol come up…
‘[W]hoso’ is Middle English for today’s ‘whoever’. This is a singular expression. ‘They’ is therefore a singular pronoun. Writers ever since have been using ‘they’ as a singular pronoun from Lewis Carroll to Shakespeare, George Eliot to Oscar Wilde. Quick quiz: George Eliot’s pronouns are?
Remember the definition of pronoun? The word ‘context’ is including in the definition. In Middle or Modern English, the use of ‘they’ will not create confusion as long as the speaker/writer has provided sufficient context. If a learned person challenges the use of ‘they’ as a singular pronoun is confusing as ‘they’ is a third-person plural, just re-challenge with the second-person plural ‘you’. No batting of eyelids over the little piece of second-person potential confusion is there? Laziness runs amok and confusion abounds.
For most of the time, pronouns cause neither confusion nor damage. However, when a person’s gender is the noun, then instigate sensitivities around what pronoun to use, else the outcomes can get somewhat heated, and rightly so. The pronouns to call the writer of this post (henceforth “The Writer”) are ‘he/him/his/himself’. Do not be lazy, do not look, assume and speak. Ask if unsure. As The Writer is finding, assumptions are dangerous and very much liable for blowing up to much merriment/harm.
As with much surrounding the use of pronouns causing concern today, the ‘enlightened’ Victorian visionaries (read educated men), began insisting on using ‘he’ as the gender non-specific pronoun. There was a certain whiff of male-privilege when the gender-neutral (and singular) ‘they’ was relegated to third-person plural use only and ‘he’ was deemed a sensible replacement. If ‘he’ was good enough for the Victorians, then ‘he’ is certainly good enough for the modern world, right? Wrong. Language changes and evolves. Since the 1850s, the great and the good of how to use language (i.e. with flexibility and communication trumping perfection) have been promoting the use of alternative gender pronouns to ensure inclusiveness. Sit down for the next bit:
No single person or body owns the English language. Whilst the English Language has grammar ‘rules’, the breaking of rules by any individual will not lead to fine, incarceration or both!
The Writer will happily entertain lively discourse over the belief grammar ‘rules’ exist so: (i) academics force language to remain constant, ensuring no requirement to update out-dated cognitive biases; (ii) copy editors remain the arbiters of acceptable language use; (iii) putting people learning English as a second language into a constant stupor from having to read the incredibly dry books created to promulgate those ‘rules’; (iv) mortals can pass tests and promptly forget the ‘rules’; or (v) pedantic copy editors keep a slim chance of global domination.
Language is communication, dear readers. Nothing more. Nothing less. Don’t get The Writer wrong, document language, less the language vanishes without trace. The documentation must be as fluid as the language, and never remain static. A documented language ensures a base level general understanding (i.e. a national school curriculum). If The Passenger and The Writer sit together on the bus reading an original version of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, The Passenger, being slightly older than The Writer, and subject to an earlier base level of education may understand the book quicker. The Passenger and The Writer can refer to relevant written texts of Middle English to aid understanding and enjoyment. Yes, constant referencing will lead to a longer time to read the book, but neither The Passenger nor The Writer have other places to be, and welcome the challenge. Do not tend to the lazy, feed the grey cells. The readers of this post understood the quoted Chaucer text, right?
How many pronouns are there? According to Ulster University there are an infinite number. Whilst The Writer theoretically believes there could well be plenty of pronouns, The Writer would challenge Ulster University to pronounce the pronoun ‘dfgxxct’. There are certainly an infinite number of combinations to arrange the 26 letters of the English alphabet. Having enough breath in the lungs or a sporting chance of pronouncing the combination limits how many usable pronouns the English language could accommodate. The Writer hazards the number of currently usable English language pronouns is substantially less than infinity: try 97, give or take a couple.
More maths now, and a quick back-of-the-envelope sum. There are approximately 170,000 English words in current use and around half of those are nouns. 97 words to replace 85,000: grammatical efficiency in action. Of those 97, the personal pronouns number 27. Gender sensitive pronouns number eight, and four are the reader’s very own pronouns. The reader’s four very personal pronouns are best not dropped from either spoken or written English. The Writer, using third person pronouns as a means of address, would sound a tad pretentious. Moi? Pretentious? Never! The result of the sum on the back of the envelope, being the percentage of gender sensitive pronouns available out of all the current words in the English language, is 0.000047% of current English words. In passing, there are 220 words for a sexually promiscuous woman in English, but only 20 for male equivalents.
This newsletter is primarily about language. The Writer is currently no expert on gender issues. However, The Writer has great trouble reconciling why brain-locked individuals cannot contemplate a far from binary world not able to accommodate a few more inclusive gender pronouns. Fine, the readers are here reading The Writer’s thoughts, but The Writer’s thoughts are fluid, happily updated when encountering extra information and upon inflicting harm, immediate rectifications offered. Don’t preach. Don’t dictate. Throw out a few tasty crumbs of brain food and wait for the spirited and educational discussion. The Writer and the readers all learn and develop ever more rounded viewpoints. Open-brained journeys are much more stimulating.
When a large cohort of brain-locked people hog the microphone and spout blinkered thought stating ‘he’ and ‘she’ are perfectly fine pronouns and cover all situations, The Writer humbly begs to differ. A quick search through a couple of Quora-hosted ‘conversations’ about gender pronouns returns arguments aplenty along the lines there are already enough pronouns and the use of ‘they’ or ‘he/she’ works perfectly well just choose one. The Writer read one such argument and the poster’s name was unisex. The poster’s luscious lip avatar could lead to an assumption the poster was a ‘she’. If the assumption is not correct, then ‘interesting outcomes’ ensue. As for enough pronouns, why the need for any more argument: lose many of those words for sexually promiscuous women and make space for new words which accommodate a more inclusive and understanding world.
‘They’ works as a gender-neutral pronoun and has been working since the times of Coleridge and Austin. The large hatted Victorian men would have the rational world think otherwise. The be-hatted ones, as with many other parts of the English language, tried to (and still try to) enforce an unwarranted male-view of the world. Currently, language and people are playing catch-up. The list of gender-neutral pronouns will continue to grow ever longer until one set becomes accepted: Here’s a sample from HubSpot (https://blog.hubspot.com/marketing/gender-neutral-pronouns):
Here is a list of gender-neutral pronouns:
He/She — Zie, Sie, Ey, Ve, Tey, E Him/Her — Zim, Sie, Em, Ver, Ter, Em His/Her — Zir, Hir, Eir, Vis, Tem, Eir His/Hers — Zis, Hirs, Eirs, Vers, Ters, Eirs Himself/Herself — Zieself, Hirself, Eirself, Verself, Terself, Emself
A first thought: Why reference gendered pronouns? This is, yes… lazy. Use a genderless title: third person pronouns. Not ‘he/she’ pronouns. Setting the right tone for education is paramount. Many of the English language teaching sites have this archaic naming too: i.e. 3rd person (female). In the today world teaching of gender pronouns, ensure the teaching materials are inclusive. Teach language and inclusiveness concurrently.
A second thought: The new gender-neutral pronouns need to be natural and pronounceable. The Writer is struggling with the pronunciation of the prior list. Strongly differentiate the new pronouns from the existing third person pronouns. ‘Hirs’ looks very similar to, and is going to be pronounced, ‘hers’. The new set of pronouns are emerging and the great work around this should continue on a broader level: political agitation for inclusion in the national English language curriculum.
Using pronouns should not be a scary proposition. However, exert particular care with the eight gender specific pronouns when the situation needs. Take the time (don’t be lazy) and learn a new set (or two) of gender-neutral third person pronouns. This can only lead to more prevalent and accepted use. Courtesy of the University of Connecticut, a guide on using gender pronouns may be of help. Upon making a mistake, apologise promptly. Don’t just move on, use the opportunity to learn more about how people think, react and deserve respect. Become a better person, educate others. Finally, don’t overlook context when trying to understand a pronoun’s relationship to a noun. Unless used for deliberate comedic effect:
Septimus: Geometry, Hobbes assures us in the Leviathan, is the only science God has been pleased to bestow on mankind.
Lady Croom: And what does he mean by it?
Septimus: Mr Hobbes or God?
(From Sir Tom Stoppard’s play, Arcadia, 1993.
Happily, only a couple of months after stumbling over the definition of pronoun, Calvin has worked out how to use pronouns and later still, Hobbes uses geometry to help with Calvin’s maths homework.
For more on grammatical use of pronouns, have a look at the EnglishClub’s pronoun guide.
NB: Except for the title, sub-title, and the pronouns contained in quotes or within quote-marks (used for demonstration), this post contains no pronouns. The Writer freely admits pronouns: are very useful; have a place and function; and should be intelligently used. Remember, use genders pronouns with care and not as a weapon of ignorance. Happy to have any rogue pronouns highlighted!
Larry the lyricist launched a liner That sailed the seven seas for fruit. A vote on the boat by the crew caused chaos As the day they freely chose to mutiny The spice spies chose to board. Larry the lyricist liked subtle flavour: Ground ginger on his melon, divine. But fruit not spice Larry’s liner carried So a crew, spies and spice smoothie was whipped up.
You can listen to my good self reading it through:
Read it through a couple of times, then record yourself. Keep practicing it for a couple of weeks then record yourself again. Listen to that first recording and hear the improvement versus the second recording. It doesn’t take much: just get in to an English speaking frame of mind a few times each day, practice saying the rhyme out loud, then return to normal programming. Repeat daily. Post your before and after links below if you dare!
When I took you for a Burton, I introduced you to some rhyming slang and provided the following example, which had caused me some angst:
I’m so boracic I can’t go to the rub-a-dub or even pay my Burton.
In plain English this roughly means:
I am rather short on money so I couldn’t possibly go to the public house, let alone facilitate the payment of my monthly house living bill.
You could have blown me down with a feather when, soon after I published that post, I read the latest volume of the Bryant and May series of books from the indomitable Christopher Fowler and stumbled across the expression again with the spelling I would expect:
'What’s that in your hand?’
He looked down, startled to find the box in his palm. ‘There’s nothing in it yet ’cause I’m a bit brassic at the moment, but I’ll fill it, I promise. I’ve got a can of Fanta in my bag; I could give you the ring pull off that for now.’
‘As irresistible as it sounds,’ said Meera, ‘I think I’ll wait.’
Mr. Fowler is a Londoner. He knows his stuff by doing both the book research and the legwork. His books and blog are testament to this effort, and well worth your time to read. I therefore have no doubts that brassic means skint. The ‘boracic’ in expression when I initially researched it was new to me. I always thought the rhyming expression was ‘brassic’. Which it is. But why is it now so?
In Cockney rhyming slang, the original term for skint is ‘boracic lint’. In passing, skint is itself a slang term with an interesting derivation, arriving from the verb skin, as in skinning an animal. In the late 19th century United States, the term gained a colloquial use to mean plunder, fleece or strip. A skin-game was one in which one player had no chance against the other. These days, a skins-game (or just skins) is a monetary rewarded style of match-play golf. Each hole is worth an amount of money to the single player who takes the fewest strokes to hole out. If two or more players tie, then the prize money rolls over to the next hole. Roll-overs continue until one player again wins a hole outright. There seems to be some dispute as to the derivation of the name for this type of golf match, but one does contest that the use of ’skins’ is from the connotation of ‘skinning’ an opponent. If someone loses a hole for a sizeable money pot, then they could well have been ‘skinned alive’ meaning swindled or fleeced. Skinned to skint… not a great phonetic leap, is it?
Boracic lint is a type of medical dressing popularised in the late 19th century, boracic lint is lint, an absorbent one side nap raised linen or cotton fabric, soaked in a solution of glycerol and boracic acid (glycerol: a thick sweet-tasting liquid that contains antimicrobial and antiviral properties which prove invaluable in the treatment of wounds; and boracic acid or boric acid: a weak acid of Boron - a metallic chemical element - that has antibacterial properties, making it effective in the treatment of wounds). The boracic lint preparation is less in use these days, but in its Victorian heyday, boracic lint was an extremely effective treatment for leg ulcers as Dr. Archibald Pearson explained before the Glasgow Southern Medical Association on the 8th March 1883.
So there’s our first clue, did you spot it? A second clue to dismiss immediately came courtesy of a celebrity article I read from one of our leading tabloid newspapers:
Other interpretations have suggested [brassic] comes from the Latin term Brassicus–which means to be poor.
I’ve searched high and low for this ‘Latin term’ and all I come back with is cabbages and no Crackerjack pencil. I’m not buying that Latin derivation. I can certainly entertain brassic as being a written version of boracic. Phonetically written, boracic is ‘bɒˈrasɪk’. Brassic has a less stressed first syllable than boracic, and the latter has a more pronounced short ‘o’ sound after the ‘b’. We tend to the lazy, so dropping a vowel sound certainly works as the second part of boracic is an identical sound to the ‘-rassic’ of brassic. Having said all that, I always thought brassic meant cold: being the much shortened version of the expression ‘cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.’ So saying ‘it’s brassic out’ meant ‘it’s rather cold outside.’ Freezing one’s balls off is a nautical topic for another time, so quickly on.
Our next clue for the magnifying glass and deerstalker. Brass was the metal of choice for the casting low value coins of yore. Being down to the last few brass coins in your pocket could be interpreted to mean one is skint, as you have little money. So whilst only having a couple of brass coins to rub together shows being momentarily poor, I find it difficult to believe it spawned the word brassic and brassic substituted for boracic, given their similarity of pronunciation. Humans like to kick back and not think too hard. So when you have a five letter word, why spend the extra breath on a seven letter word? Moving on.
Another link between brassic and brass, and one I also hold little faith in, refers to the expression brass tacks. However, ‘getting down to brass tacks’ means more about getting down to the basics of how something works or operates rather than having any monetary sense. Many reasons on origination of brass tacks, but personally I go for the analogy of shoes of yore not being much good without tacks: therefore tacks were vital in order to provide usable footwear and held everything together. Getting down to brass tacks is trying to identify what is holding everything together. Sure, money holds much together, but I think it is a very long stretch to take brass tacks as having anything to do with being skint. No clues in that minor detour.
So the clues identified, and my little grey cells tickled, my deduction: medical practises evolved, boracic lint usage waned, the full ‘boracic lint’ expression of deepest Cockneyland was shortened to boracic then finally brassic. Humans tend to the lazy!
What do you call a linguist with a PhD in palindromes? Dr. Awkward.
If, like much of the world, you write your dates as day, month then year, then today is palindromic (assuming you add an extra zero in to the mix).
When you read the date left to right, or right to left, it is identical.
Palindromes are numbers, words or phrases that read the same backwards and forwards, letter for letter, number for number, or word for word. They can be a lot of fun.
Palindrome. Noun. From Greek palindromos, running back again, from pálin, back again and drómos, running.
The English writer Ben Jonson coined the word in the 17th century. However, palindromes have a much older history. In 276BC the Greek poet, Sotades wrote palindrome about the Egyptian King, Ptolemy II, that was not well received. Imprisoned, escaped, recaptured, and finally locked in a leaden box, Sotades set sail to sea. He sank. Scholars are doubting whether Sotades verses are indeed palindromic (shouldn’t be difficult to find out, methinks), so the Latin phrase discovered in 79AD "Sator Arepo Tenet Opera Rotas" is the oldest recorded palindrome. This became known as the Sator (or Rotas) Square.
Though originating in words (or Egyptian hieroglyphs), there are infinitely more palindromic numbers to play with. I’ll not dwell on them as we could be here a long, long time. One series of interest:
Fourth powers1 of a palindrome series of numbers gives more palindromes.
Does it continue forever? The University of Surrey has an interactive page on palindromic numbers so perhaps you can find out.
Luckily, there are fewer palindromic words. Plenty of single word examples in the following sentences:
Mmm, where to begin? We lost the kayak on the radar2. Hah, hah, hah. That gag was lol. If you don't know your araara from your ataata, get a bird book. A single pull-up will make you redder. It’s good for the rotator cuff, though. Did you know keek is a Scots word for peep! At noon, we toot then re-paper the tallat. How does one eke the pip out of an eye? That bub is a real tot. Best get a bib on him ere I gag. That rotor gave me a tirrit. It’s a dud. That collar for the pup needs a terret. Aha, Bob, it’s ewe and not eve. The mallam will explain the tenet. Put all the tut, tat and pap in the box of junk. What is the oppo of poop? The stats are kak. It’s my civic duty to use a rotavator and level the soil. Yay, yey, heh! Huh? The ancient sagas note the reviver did the deed. Cooking naan on the aga. Let’s ask nan, is it mom or mum, pop or dad? At the gig there was an Abba tribute band. Is it mam or madam? The kook deified the goog. Wow, so many palindromes! Zzz…
Easier to use single word palindromes in sentences, but there are full palindromic sentences out there, for example:
Do geese see God? Never odd or even. A man, a plan, a canal: Panama. Amore, Roma. Taco cat. Madam, I’m Adam. UFO Tofu! Was it a cat or a car I saw?
Another form of palindromic word play is symmetric word sentences. For example:
King, are you glad you are king?
I did, did I?
For these palindromes you read the individual words in the usual left-to-right manner but reverse the reading of the sentence. As with much of this word play, we are granted flexibility for punctuation and capitalisation. This would seem to be the easiest way to generate something palindromic. Ensuring the sentence makes sense is perhaps a little more tricky.
The title of this post is a palindrome. Of interest is that each individual word is a palindrome of sorts. Instead of the reverse of the word being the same, the reverse of these words forms another word. You should have noticed the same happening with the Sator Square.
Other countries have fun with palindromes. The Japanese word for palindrome is kaibun (回文). Kaibun is based on kana and ga is equivalent to ka. The following sentence is a kaibun:
かるいきびんなこねこなんびきいるか (How many light clever cats are there?)
Early in my time spent living in Tokyo, even with my poor Japanese, I noticed the kanji for the Nishi Kasai district was palindromic:
Other kanji-only palindromes include:
絵里絵 A painting of Eri
My Japanese readers may like to teach me a few more, and readers with other languages under their belts. I’m sure there are many other palindromes in many other languages. Let me have some below, please. I’ll leave you with the longest known palindromic word: saippuakivikauppias (19 letters), which is Finnish for a dealer in caustic soda.
Finally, if you have an irrational fear of palindromes, then you have a phobia to resort to: aibohphobia. Notice anything interesting about that word?