August 14, 2006

Ask Language Log: confessions of an interpolated sub-head

In response to my post "Sharps, Sharks and Gentlemen" (8/13/2006), Eric Christopherson wrote:

[Y]ou quote something with the title "Confessions of an--Played the World Over---Old-Time Gambler". What is going on with that title? Specifically, a) is it normal in English to use _an_ rather than _a_ before a parenthetical expression beginning with a consonant, if the first non-parenthetical word starts with a vowel sound? And b) does this mean the gambler _has_ played the world over (I would read it to mean the gambler _is_ played the world over, which doesn't really make sense)?

Well, here's an image of the top of page 6 of The National Police Gazette, June 20, 1903 (courtesy of ProQuest's American Periodicals Series):

The interpolation of "Played the World Over" into the middle of "Confessions of an Old-Time Gambler" seems weird to me, too. However, it was standard practice in The National Police Gazette at that time. I picked another 1903 issue of the same publication at random -- August 1 -- and immediately found another example:

This one doesn't have the a/an problem, but the result is equally ill-formed from a modern point of view: "Jeff Supremely Confident -- Neglects His Training to Go Hunting -- of Whipping Corbett". As far as I can tell, this sort of thing was purely a matter of headline-writing style -- probably motivated by the way that the periodical was displayed for sale -- and never happened within the text of a story. I don't know when such interpolated sub-heads began, or when they ended (if they did end -- I haven't seen any recently, but maybe I just read the wrong periodicals...).

As for Eric's second question, my own interpretation would be that "played the world over" involves the preterite form of play, shortened from "He played the world over", and thus is neither short for "has played" nor for "is played".

[By the way, the headlined confidence was vindicated. On 8/14/1903, James J. Jeffries knocked out James J. Corbett in the 10th round, retaining his heavyweight championship. Was that the only championship fight between two men with the same first name and the same middle initial?]

[Update -- several people have written to me with variations on the theme "it's not an interpolated phrase, you dope, it's just a funny way of laying out a sub-heading". That's exactly what I thought I was saying about it, actually, but clearly I wasn't clear enough.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at August 14, 2006 05:42 PM