Confused? Read on...
, you can find the headline:
US rejects China currency
- Did China accuse the US of messing with its currency?
- Did someone find out that low quality American dollars rejected
by the US Treasury are being recycled as Yuan?
- Is there an excess of positive ions on Yuan bank notes?
- Is the US annoyed at the Yuan's overly rapid advance?
- Did China accuse the US of not staying up to date?
As it happens, none of the above
meanings were intended.
The headline describes a refusal
of the US Treasury to accuse China of manipulating trading of the Yuan.
Now I'll freely admit that most of the readings I can come up with for
the headline are implausible, although it's fun to identify them.
(Challenge: how many readings can you find?) But still, in this case
and many others it's impossible to identify the correct reading unless
you already know the story. While it's obvious
that currency manipulation is the crime, it's all but impossible to
tell who's accusing who.
Why is it that headlines are so maddeningly ambiguous? Is there an
incentive for headlines to be vague or ambiguous in order to draw the
reader in? This would run counter to standard claims and prescriptions
about what makes good functional language... but that doesn't mean the
technique doesn't work.
And is this even restricted to newspaper headlines? When you get down
to it, aren't many of our utterances, though dressed up as useful
packages of information, in fact just a tease? Nice weather. Is it that
time already. Do you have a sister? What are you wearing? Quiet in
here, isn't it?
But I digress. I was in the middle of a stock post about ambiguous news
headlines, an old
favorite of viral emails, intro linguistics classes, and, of course, Language Log
Yet I think few
people realize just how common the phenomenon really is. On one single
few weeks ago (May 24 2007), the BBC News website not only contained
three intentionally groan-inducing headers Bird makes a splash on
taxicabs 'to go green'
, and Genes shed light on fish
, but also all of the
following apparently 'straight' headlines:
Lack of nurses
(I don't get it. Why would we want nurses to kill Africans?)
Polls close in
(Are they really so close? Or did they close?)
Tamil rebels launch
(Attack on a navy? With a navy? Both?)
US approves pill to
(Headline writers have obviously been taking it for years.)
Social security for
(It's a damn shame that Indian's social security is poor.)
Wal-Mart to sell
(Doesn't Dell already have computers?)
Sleepless record man
(Did the sleepless try to record a man feeling fine as part of a
cure for their insomnia?)
One wonders if headline writers get paid by the meaning.
Posted by David Beaver at June 14, 2007 01:43 AM