Headlines notable for their ambiguity, or difficulty, in parsing, are a regular feature of Language Log and occasionally of this blog. But there are other ways for headlines to stand out; for instance, otherwise dead metaphors can be revivified by context, as in my first example.
And there are several ways in which (potential) ambiguity can contribute to difficulties for the reader. Below I look at two specific examples, of different types.
1. Revivified metaphors. Passed on by Benita Bendon Campbell, this headline from the political blog “The Fix” in the Washington Post on the 19th:
Senate Democrats’ campaign arm outraised Republican arm in September
Campaign arm involves arm understood as ‘division of an organization’, and this originally metaphorical sense (dating back at least to Middle English) is simply listed in dictionaries as one sense among others, and people who write about campaign arms these days almost surely don’t entertain images of the arms in question as body parts. But the verb outraised brings some life back to the dead metaphor in arm, and suggests an athletic competition between Democrats and Republicans in arm raising. Any arm you can raise, I can raise higher.
2. Modifier attachment. On Tuesday night I read a headline from the San Jose Mercury News out loud to a visiting friend. The point was the content of the story, about how the Fremont (CA) school board had barred a teacher from having students read and discuss two works (Bastard Out of Carolina and Angels in America), after which a local Unitarian Universalist church invited the teacher to offer a course on these works at the church). The head:
Church offering class on books banned by Fremont school board
No problem there; banned by Fremont school board modifies books. Unfortunately, I paused in reading, right after books, thereby bringing out another possible reading, in which banned by Fremont school board modifies church. The first reading is the one the headline writer intended; it has the default interpretation for modifier phrases (“low attachment”); and it’s the interpretation that makes the most sense in context. But adjusting the prosody can bias the listener towards “high attachment”, even though it’s relatively unlikely that a school board would seek to ban a church.
3. Parsing compounds. In general, out of context, a compound N composed of three Ns in sequence can have either of two constituencies,
N1 + [ N2 + N3 ] or [ N1 + N2 ] + N3
Consider this headline from New York magazine (passed on to me by Victor Steinbok on the 22nd):
Real-Estate Porn Stars
The intended interpretation is ‘stars of real-estate porn’, with head stars (in this case, referring to properties, that is, locations, that are stars, that is, stand-outs, for potential sales), modified by real-estate porn (with an instance of the snowclonelet composite X porn). But you need context to discard the reading ‘porn stars in real estate’, which is so easily available because the compound porn star ‘star in porn (movies)’ is frequent to the point of serving as a fixed expression (often spelled solid — pornstar — and somewhat bleached of meaning: in advertising, pornstars are often not stars at all, but just ordinary porn actors being pushed by a studio).
The ‘porn stars in real estate’ reading is by no means unlikely, since prudent porn stars establish other sources of income to turn to when their (relatively brief) lives as lust objects are over, and real estate is one fairly popular choice. So the question is whether the story is about porn stars or about star properties. The potential ambiguity is eliminated in practice by photos accompanying the story and of course by the content of the body of the story.
(Victor Steinbok also entertained the possibility that real-estate porn stars was a phrasal overlap portmanteau, or POP, combining the meanings of real-estate porn and porn stars. A theoretical possibility, but I don’t see how to get a plausible interpretation out of it.)