Stumped by a Brit

English headlines are bad enough. Nouns can be read as verbs and verbs can be read as nouns. And those are not the only sources of ambiguity. Sometimes, as in my former colleague Matt Nesvisky’s classic headline about the departure of the Tetley tea company from Israel—


—the ambiguity is amusing.

And indeed there are many examples of similarly funny heads, such as:

Youth of 80 lands
At rally in India

(thanks for this to Garst and Bernstein’s Headlines and Deadlines).

Headlines in Hebrew are even more likely to be confusing because Hebrew newspapers (like most reading material in Israel for adults and older children) are printed without vowels.

Every morning during the recent primaries in the US I would be stopped dead in my tracks while I pondered why a Romanian (romani in Hebrew) had won or lost and why the candidate’s ethnic origin was at all relevant. After a second or two, of course, I would realize that the headline was referring to Romney, who I’m pretty sure has no Romanian blood.

I am also often puzzled by headlines announcing an award to a different country almost every day. This is thanks to our tireless (may he live to 120) and peripatetic president, Shimon Peres, whose surname in Hebrew can also be read as pras (“prize” or “award”).

I’m more used to being stopped dead in my tracks by Hebrew heads than by English ones. But this morning I did a double take when I saw the following on Time magazine’s online edition, and again it had to do with an award:

The Best and Worst Performances of the 2012 Brit Awards

Okay, so I didn’t stay up to watch the Oscars and I’m not up on all the awards given out these days. But surely it is going to an extreme to give prizes for performance in circumcisions.

True, I’ve diapered plenty of babies and seen very different outcomes of brit performance, and I know that a certain ritual circumciser in Jerusalem is considered the bee’s knees, mainly because he hasn’t botched any performances in a major way.

But I had to go to the subhead on that Time article to learn that the Brits in question are English-speakers like myself who are probably a lot less confused than I am about the nature of the awards in question, namely England’s annual pop music awards.

So maybe there still is room for an award for brit performance, and I can already see the headlines:

The winner: A cut above the rest

Winner cuts no slack

And I’m sure you can do better than that, even if you’ve never had the pleasure of working for a newspaper.

Text copyright 2012 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.


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5 Responses to “Stumped by a Brit”

  1. David Bennett Says:

    Well I guess it is better than ‘Winner takes all’

    The ‘Brit’ Awards has always sounded odd to my ears. Short for British or Britannia, of course, its sounds ‘pop’ and jingoistic.

  2. Tamara Says:

    Love this article, Esther – terrific writing, I was laughing very heartily throughout most of it!

    And as an American who’s lived overseas for about 20 years including about 14 years here in the UK and because of my intense interest in language, I am keenly aware of the differences between British English and American English.

    This also brings up amusing cross-cultural bewilderment on my part, with my favorite one of all time being about creches in schools.

    I don’t remember the exact newspaper headline because it was from years ago. However, I remember precisely that I piped up immediately to David, “Why, we never have creches in school in the USA because of our general separation of church and state in such matters.”

    David laughed at that one for sure, because the ‘creche’ in question is simply the British English word used for an area within the school which is a kind of ‘holding pen’ for pre-schoolers (uh, I can’t think of a better way than that to describe it), and it most certainly has nothing to do with the Cristian concept of a creche.

    Not as much fun as getting Mitt Romney mixed up with Romanians like you mentioned :-), but one that does confirm again that quotation that the USA and the UK are “two countries separated by a common language.”

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