Another headline

Another fine headline, perhaps from the 1950s. Such is its linguistic creativity that I’ll settle here for the language of the day, rather than trying to rephrase the story in PC-speak:

A patient escaped from a loony bin, burst into a launderette, and molested two staff before running off.  The headline ran:

Nut screws washers and bolts

Linguistically an even more perfect version manages to award the first word a plural too:

A rich family named Nuts owned a chain of laundromats [cf. the old “lavatory chain” line]. Having exploited their workers for years they finally absconded. Hence

Nuts screws washers and bolts

Ambiguity

On syntax, in cases like these it can be tricky to surmise whether the opening adjective should apply to the first or second of the following nouns. Some may be clarified by means of a judiciously-placed hyphen, but that would spoil the fun:

Vibrated concrete manufacturer
Missing intelligence officer
Edible oil merchants
Used car dealer
Great Queen Street
Hot bread shop
Swiss watch maker
Affordable housing shortage (one for conservative governments, confident that we—or rather they—can indeed afford a housing shortage)
as  well as the classic
Fine tooth comb,
and perhaps even
One trick pony.

The letter to the leader of the quartet belongs in this category too.

This almost shades into silly headlines:

SQUAD HELPS DOG BITE VICTIM

The definitive transliteration

I just can’t resist constructing a headline to incorporate some of my favourite Chinese transliterations:

帅克耍耍圣桑的兔子不拉屎
Shuaike shuashua Shengsangde tuzibulashi

or

Conquering General plays with the Rabbits-don’t-shit of Sage Mulberry.

Or, if you insist,

Švejk plays with the toothbrush of Saint-Saëns.

What kind of language do you call that, ask the Plain People of Ireland. Beat that, China Daily.

Among several references to the toothbrush in The good soldier Švejk, try this:

Then she took out of the hamper three bottles of wine for the convalescent and two boxes of cigarettes. She set out everything elegantly on the empty bed next to Švejk’s, where she also put a beautifully bound book, Stories from the life of our Monarch, which had been written by the present meritorious chief editor of our official Czechoslovak Republic who doted on old Franz. Packets of chocolate with the same inscription, “Gott strafe England,” and again with pictures of the Austrian and German emperors, found their way to the bed. On the chocolate they were no longer clasping hands; each was acting on his own and turning his back to the other. There was a beautiful toothbrush with two rows of bristles and the inscription “Viribus unitis,” so that anyone who cleaned his teeth should remember Austria.

The latest research, however, suggests that Saint-Saëns (1835–1921) once carelessly left his toothbrush behind at his hotel while on tour in Prague—he was indeed a keen traveller, but his biographies are curiously silent about this incident. Later the Good Soldier came across it by chance while rummaging in a junk shop, and proceeded to toy with it.

Still, we cannot dismiss the possibility that the toothbrush may be employed here in its popular Slovakian metaphorical sense. In a comment suggestive of Molvania, Roberts (From Good King Wenceslas to the Good Soldier Švejk: A Dictionary of Czech Popular Culture) notes:

Slovácko is best-known for its traditional culture: distinctive national costumes are still occasionally worn, folk traditions like The Ride of the Kings [a major theme of Kundera’s The joke—SJ] still celebrated yearly. The largely rural residents of Slovácko are known as well for their love of slivovice, which they refer to as their morning toothbrush.

So have I been barking up the wrong tree? In this case, one wonders further: just what kind of liqueur was Saint-Saëns’ so-called “toothbrush”? In our headline, perhaps we may now interpret the verb shuashua “fooling around with” as referring to a tasting session—given Švejk’s Bacchic propensities, surely an epic event, at which Flann O’Brien would have been more than welcome.

Headline punning

Since I often seem to find myself citing drôle headlines, Kate Fox again has some fine observations on the subject (Watching the English, p.225):

It seems to me that the English love of words—and particularly the universal nature of this passion, which transcends all class barriers—is most perfectly demonstrated not by the erudite wit of the broadsheet columnists, brilliant though they are, but by the journalists and sub-editors who write the headlines in the tabloids. Take a random selection of English tabloids and flip through them: you will soon notice that almost every other headline involves some kind of play on words—a pun, a double meaning, a deliberate jokey misspelling, a literary or historical reference, a clever neologism, an ironic put-down, a cunning rhyme or amusing alliteration, and so on.

Yes, many of the puns are dreadful; much of the humour is labored, vulgar or childish; the sexual innuendo is overdone; and the relentlessness of the wordplay can become wearing after a while. You may find yourself longing for a headline that simply gives you the gist of the story, without trying to be funny or clever. But the sheer ingenuity and linguistic playfulness must be admired, and all this compulsive punning, rhyming and joking is uniquely and gloriously English. Other countries may have “quality” newspapers at least as learned and well written as ours, but no other national press can rival the manic wordplay of English tabloid headlines. So there we are: something to be proud of.