An Irishman's Diary


WAS THE headline “Red Rum in stable condition” actually used? (Red Rum was the great horse that won the Grand National three times.) A friend swore to me that he had read it in a British tabloid and can even remember the year (1992), though not the name of the paper or much else about the article. However, a recent “Irishman’s Diary” by Frank McNally (April 21st) on the subject of dodgy headlines reminded me of browsing through quite a collection from various printed sources and below are some of the best or worst of them.

It is easy to diagnose the illness: a more careful choice of words would have left the headline, if not perfectly, at least fairly, clear.

“Actor sent to jail for not finishing sentence”, proclaimed the El Paso Times (probably one of George W Bush’s favourite reads), while the Indian Express told its readers that “Artificial limbs centre has new head”.

Now the sensitivity of Texan cowboy or native Indian headline writers to the nuances of the English language may not be all it should be but the Guardian (no less) had this lazy example in its sailing section: “Smith breaks leg in third leg”. I wonder was the Morning Star headline “Cannabis smuggling by troops: investigation by joint chiefs” deliberate? If it was not, the writer should have been bust.

Whether deliberate or not, “Equity blacks Othello” should simply not have been used by the Daily Telegraph but I suppose headline writers, like everyone else, do get a bit playful at times. Whoever penned “Bus on fire — passengers alight” for the West Wales Guardian obviously had a penchant for ambiguity. And they get worse, or better, depending on your point of view or mood, such as “Nudists may get coastal strip” (Sussex News); “Body in garden was a plant, says wife” (Morning Post); and “Bristol flower group pick their leader”. If her name was Lily or Rose or Violet, that would be very appropriate.

“Ex-boxer battered outside chip shop” (Cheltenham Echo) is a messy pun, and how did the Oxford Mail get away with “Unprecedented event: undergraduates scratch balls”? I would love to know whether the writers were alive to the ambiguity in “Police found safe under blanket” (Gloucester Echo), or “Condom faults may lead to dating policy” (Bridgwater Courier), or “999 men deliver baby” (Kentish Express). I bet those who wrote “New windows – dramatic breakthrough” (Bromley Advertiser) and “Rare Swansea pottery to go under hammer” (South Wales Evening Post) were having a smashing time.

Now puns and ambiguity, whether deliberate or not, may be excused to some extent but in the following headline examples, the writers seemed to be uncertain about the one thing in life concerning which there is absolutely no ambiguity, ie death. “Para girl to repeat fatal jump”, in the World in Runcorn, is one such example. Another is “French railway president quits after second fatal accident”, from the Toronto Globe.

Even more startling is “Hirohito’s body moved” (Edmonton Echo).

On the other hand, uncertainty can also be found in headlines about whether someone is actually alive or not. Writing about the aforementioned Bush’s father, the Voice of America announced: “Mr Bush is first living US president to visit Czechoslovakia”. Perhaps that headline explains why Bush jnr had travelled so little outside of America before his election in 2000.

Sometimes it’s a simple case of choosing the wrong preposition, as in “Man shot dead by police station” (Evening Standard).

The following headlines are pretty beastly and in the first of them, “Yorkshire man takes Supreme Pig title” (Harrogate Advertiser), the film Babe certainly springs to mind. The Guardian slipped up again with “Woman is sheep dog champion”, as did the Daily Telegraph with “Dead cats protest” (about the cruelty of humans, no doubt). “British bird men held by Turkey” was another classic from the same paper.

Some headlines have been known to proclaim the impossible or unheard of. For instance, the reputable Wall Street Journal once announced “Rest of year may not follow January”, and the equally reputable New York Times referred to “New York ban on boxing after death”. I am not sure how reputable Action China is but it had the interesting headline “Frozen semen talks”.

It does not take a genius to see that something ails the following medical headlines. The Times of London (again? – tut, tut) had “Mark scratches after ‘mystery’ rash”, and the Minneapolis Star Tribune had the sports headline “Several Vikings hit with intestinal infection: more colour photos, page 14c”.

An American newspaper, the name of which I was not able to trace but I assure you that I am not making up the headline, had the unflattering “X-rays of ‘Dizzy’ Dean’s head show nothing”.

The Pasadena Star News had the worrying “Critics say county mental health near collapse”, which perhaps explains the fruitless X-rays.

A fondness for including numbers can damage some headlines. The Harrow Observer’s “Youth hit by train rushed to two hospitals” created the wrong image. And was the Milton Keynes Gazette journalist who wrote “Schizophrenic killed herself with two plastic bags” being a bit of a smart aleck or a stickler for detail?

Headlines on news pieces are meant to inform, while those on feature, opinion and other kinds of articles seek to stimulate readers’ interests in various ways and persuade them to read on. It is hard to know what effect the foregoing collection had on readers – confused them maybe or caused them to groan, but perhaps also gave them a laugh.

The sign “Guard dogs operating here” really was spotted outside Epsom District Hospital, but signs are another story.

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