Humanising Language Teaching
A few things we need to know in order to understand headlines
A You may fail to understand a headline for a number of reasons.
a) the meaning of a word or phrase-e.g., Row at AGM (A 'row', /rau/, is a dispute.)
b) what a certain abbreviation stands for-e.g., Row at AGM (AGM stands for 'annual general meeting'.)
c) what the grammatical structure of the headline is-e.g., Spin 'to end' Is spin a noun or a verb? (It is a noun meaning 'lack of honesty by government officials when speaking to the public-not lies but not really the truth either'. So, this headline means, Spin 'is going to end'. The quotation marks mean that somebody said this.)
=> (b) and (c) have to do with linguistic knowledge; (a) too, usually…but see further below.
d) who or what is meant by a name-e.g., Whitehall uneasy (Whitehall means the UK civil service, which has its headquarters in the former Whitehall Palace.)
=> (d) has to do with broader cultural knowledge or even general knowledge.
Here are two more examples of headlines that we need the right bits of general knowledge in order to understand fully.
Wolf heads pack
Here, we need to know that a group of wolves is a pack and each pack, apparently, has a lead wolf.
To fully understand the one below, we need know that there are 'gas fired' and 'coal fired' power plants-i.e., ones that use gas as fuel and ones that use coal. Further, we need the linguistic knowledge that to be fired means 'to be sacked, to be dismissed from your job'.
Let's return to category (a) and have a closer look at it, starting with idioms and puns.
B - Idioms These are phrases whose meaning you cannot easily guess even if you know the meaning of the individual words that make the phrase up. For instance, by and large means 'in general', but you would never guess that just by knowing by, and, and large.
An example of an idiom in a headline: US wants Arafat 'kicked upstairs'
This might be hard to understand because of the idiom kick someone upstairs. It means 'give someone a job of higher status but less power so that they will (a) cause less trouble but (b) not be disgraced'.
An example of a pun in a headline:
Much in the aria at AGM for Alan Smith
To understand this, you need to know the following-
Opera singers sometimes sing 'arias'. (Ditto)
There is an expression be in the air which is used like this-"There were various topics/rumours in the air…" (Linguistic knowledge)
Here is another pun-
End of Sommer at Telekom
Here, given that the topic is taxes, the phrase we might expect is tax returns (i.e., those forms you have to fill in each year about the money you earned and so on). But there is also a word taxing, which means 'arduous, tiring'. The article tells us that there were errors in the tax returns. The headline tells us that all this errors must have been taxing/tiring for someone (i.e., the people who had to deal with the errors).
D - Metaphors
Glaxo SmithKline on sick list and the R&D remedy's found wanting …
In the headline the writer begins to refer to a company as if it were a sick person. This implied analogy (i.e., metaphor) is continued in the article that follows the headline. Why? (1) The company produces pharmaceuticals. (2) It is not in good condition. (3) The author wants to display a sense of fun. A reader who recognizes all this-or at least (1) and (2)-understands both the headline and the article better than a reader who doesn't.
E - Metaphors vs clichës and idioms
Of course, the best headline writers prefer fresh, image-rich wording, but if they can't think of anything new, they will gladly use clichës instead-e.g.,
Perhaps every idiom was first an original, interesting, easy-to understand metaphorical expression, then a cliché. Then, as time passed, the images or stories behind these expressions were forgotten. When that happened, the metaphorical expression became an idiom. Many, if not most, phrasal verbs probably have just such a history. Here is one in a headline-
To get the joke here we need the cultural knowledge that Lord's is a cricket ground. We also need to know what caught out means. The author used this expressed in the headline because it comes from cricket. The root of the metaphor is as follows. A batter who hits a ball which is caught by an opposing player is 'out' (i.e., cannot continue batting) or, more precisely, 'caught out'. In everyday English to say that someone has been caught is to say that they have been foiled in some way so that they cannot continue with their (bad) behaviour.
F - Metonymy
Dealers tear their hair out in a white-knuckle ride
Let's take the second one first. To understand it we may need to read a bit of the article and see that a day of stock prices going far up and then suddenly far down is spoken of (metaphorically) as a rollercoaster ride. Now, some people get frightened when they ride a rollercoaster and so they grip the safety bar tightly. This causes their knuckles to turn white. So, the association is 'white knuckles - fright'.
The other instance of metonymy is tear their hair out. That is, the act of tearing your hair out suggests, or may be associated with, desperation.
Thus, the metonyms in this headline tell us that the dealers were desperate and frightened.
Here is another metonym.
Cadbury loses its fizz as beverage sales fall
First, we need the cultural knowledge that Cadburys produces not just chocolate but soft drinks, including ones that are carbonated or, in everyday English, fizzy.
Most people think it is bad when a carbonated drink loses its fizz and that such a drink is 'flat' and unappealing. The association is 'loss of fizz - unappealing'. So the headline means, 'Cadbury stocks lose their appeal to buyers as beverage sales fall'.
G - Closing observation about the distinction 'linguistic vs cultural/general knowledge'
There is no sharp division between linguistic knowledge on the one hand and cultural/general knowledge on the other. Still, the distinction seems to me to have some use as a heuristic.
The end SethL@hilderstone.ac.uk