Double-jointed words in our language
One of the pleasures of being in London for a few days, as I was over the Labor Day weekend, is getting to experience British newspapers directly.
But as I sat in seat 38G of my plane on the tarmac at Heathrow, awaiting departure for the return flight, with The Guardian open in front of me, and extending into the personal air rights of seat 38F as well as the aisle beside me, I stumbled over a headline. I had to read it at least four times before I got it: "New academy schools fuel education row."
My eye caught "fuel education," which sounded as if it could be a program of tips on how to get better mileage from gasoline. And then I read it as "schools fuel," which made me think maybe I'd stumbled onto a story about classroom buildings being shifted from coal to electric heat.
Then I focused on "academy schools," but I read "schools" as a verb, as it would be used in a (headline) sentence such as "Academy schools children from all over city." But that's not what was going on there. It finally occurred to me that "academy" was modifying "schools," which was being used as a noun. "Academy schools" were meant to be a sort of British answer to American-style "charter schools" - publicly funded institutions outside the usual curriculum and management style, seen as an alternative to traditional state schools deemed to have failed.
I'm not sure why such a school can't be called simply an academy. In any case, this process of elimination left "fuel" standing as the lone candidate for the predicate verb of the sentence, and I finally made sense of the headline. It was trying to communicate the idea that these "charter schools" are causing a stir among educators.
That it took so long for me to get it in the first place was maybe my fault. But I might not have been reading the headline from right to left in the first place except that my eye had followed my right arm out into the aisle as I opened the paper up fully. They don't call these newspapers "broadsheets" for nothing. Something about them discourages furtive reading.
A word on the last word of the headline: "Row," in this sense, has nothing to do with taking your boat gently down the stream. This "row" rhymes with "how now" and is a staple of British headline writing: It covers, with admirable succinctness and a dash of informality, concepts otherwise expressed by Latinate polysyllables: controversy, disagreement, contention.
Except for that "w" stretched open like a salesman's sample case, it's a short word, only three letters. It's even shorter than one of my favorites, "flap." And, of course, all these describe phenomena that are the very stuff of politics and journalism: Newspapers need such words the way tailors need cloth.
All these short words - bid, blast, cut, fuel, hit, score, spark, spur, strike, surge, and the rest, as well as our friend "row" - have the advantage of conciseness, beloved of headline writers. All these words work as either verbs or nouns. And piled up in front of other nouns, they can be pressed into service as adjectives.
Most of the time, these work. But flexibility can sometimes lead to ambiguity, as the meaning seems to shift as you read, which happened to me on the tarmac.
On the other hand, once you get the hang of it, you can make up your own, and then invent stories to run under them. One can imagine an article on the controversy surrounding a cap on public spending in a community waterlogged after a major flood (for example): "Fiscal freeze fans flames of flood flap."
Can you come up with your own? • This appears with links at: http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/ verbal_energy