Verbal Energy

The doubts of the riot kiss photographer

A news item from Vancouver's hockey fracas shows how the Web compresses our language – and just how well English stands up to being squeezed.

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The next time you meet a journalist, ask whether he or she has a colleague known as a "riot kiss photographer."

It's probably not a title for a business card. But there it was in a headline, as I trolled for news nibbles on The Atlantic Wire: "Vancouver Riot Kiss Photographer Doubts It Was Staged."

If you missed it: The Boston Bruins beat the Vancouver Canucks the other day to win the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1972. Mercifully, fans in the Athens of America celebrated without serious injury. That's not always been the case.

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But the usually cool Canadians briefly lost it, turning Vancouver into a riot zone. Not everyone was fully caught up in the action, though. Call it the smooch seen round the world: Photographer Richard Lam captured an image, just a few yards from a mounted police unit, of a couple who were lying in the street and, well, kissing.

It became one of the most reproduced images from the melee. The Atlantic item was a "second-day story," focusing on whether the picture was faked or staged somehow. Mr. Lam explained to The Atlantic that the police were moving too fast to put up with anyone "setting up" a photo. It was later reported that the police had knocked down the woman in the picture, and that her boyfriend had lain down beside her to calm her – whereupon one thing led to another.

I'm a little embarrassed to admit my first reaction to that headline was, "Wow, look at the way all those attributive nouns are piled up – and one of them is serving as the antecedent for the pronoun. I'm not sure that's quite legal."

Is it the Web's fault that we write such compressed sentences?

Not long ago, James Fallows reported – also in The Atlantic, as it happens – on his visit to Nick Denton's Gawker empire of online media.

One of Mr. Denton's staff told Mr. Fallows, "It's almost as if you've got to get the whole story into the headline, but leave out enough that people will want to click." Headline writing was ever thus. But Denton makes it sound more straightforward. He told Fallows: "The public is not very forgiving of wit in headlines. Or irony. You can get away with one opinionated word, if the rest is literal and clear."

The Atlantic headline was compressed, and yet made sense. If you knew there had been a riot in Vancouver, you could infer that somehow, somewhere, someone had kissed someone else during it (hence "Vancouver riot kiss"); that it had been photographed; that a question of "staging" had arisen, and that someone had gotten the shooter's perspective – hence reference to "doubts" about staging.

That's a lot of meaning in just a few words. And note how many of them function as either nouns or verbs: riot, kiss, doubt, stage. It may not make sense till the end. But then all the pieces fall into place.

My quibble was with the "it." A pronoun needs an antecedent, a noun to relate to. This "it" evidently referred to "kiss" – but "kiss" was a modifier there, not really a noun. It was all a little too concise, to my mind.

It might have been different at a broadsheet newspaper, with space for something like, "Photographer who snapped canoodling Canucks doubts scene was staged" – except that in the third-day story, it turned out that the man in the picture was Australian.

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