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The copy editor’s search for short words to make headlines fit the available space led over the years to a jargon called headlinese — words used in senses peculiar to newspapers. The example above is a pure specimen: solons for legislators, after Solon, the Athenian lawgiver; slate for schedule; parley, for meeting or negotiations, after the French parler, to speak (also the root of parliament).

Habitual readers of newspapers were familiar with these conventions, or so copy editors thought, but in recent years attempts have been made to get away from headlinese and write in more conversational English. But the old conventions still crop up, and today You Don’t Say presents a little quiz that will indicate how much of a hack you have in your head. Just fill in the blanks. Answers below.

1. Council ______ tax on cigars

2. Union ______ company’s offer

3. Team _____ star player

4. Star player ______ contract.

5. Negotiators OK peace ______

6. Health department shuts down _____

7. Police _____ fugitive

8. Date for premiere _____

9. Bush ______ indicted

10. Guard shot in bank _____







1. Council weighs tax on cigars. Mulls is also acceptable. For considers.

2. Union eyes contract offer. Mulls is also acceptable. For considers.

3. Team woos star player. For solicits.

4. Star player inks contract. For signs.

5. Negotiators OK peace pact. For agreement or treaty. And OK for approve is marginal.

6. Health department shuts down eatery. For restaurant.

7. Police nab fugitive. For apprehend.

8. Date for premiere set. For announced or approved or agreed on.

9. Bush aide indicted. For official or subordinate.

10. Guard shot in bank heist. For robbery.



If you answered no more than two or three correctly, be relieved. You are a normal speaker of English.

If you got four to six right, you are probably an inveterate reader of newspapers, and bless your heart.

If you got seven or more right, you are probably a copy editor, and your ear for the language may have been seriously compromised



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:44 AM | | Comments (14)


Gee, I thought council was either going to hike the tax on cigars or nix it. Until I got to No. 5, I thought they might OK it. I didn't know they were going to mull it over first.

That would've been a lot easier if I had a synonym to start with. A lot of those headlines aren't even news to me, because nothing's actually happened yet. How is "considering" something news?

I had the council "levies" tax, union "nixes" offer and Bush "kin" indicted to add three more headline-only-and-even-then words to your list.

I had "raps" for #2. The Raleigh paper likes to use that as a short form for "criticize."

I had "nixed" for #8. I guess I'm a pessimist.

Back in the previous century, one of the two opinion page editors at the paper where I worked suggested that we fill a headline with words like these. I can't remember any of it except "top-level parley," but he was completely serious. We chose not to follow his advice.

Some time later, a new co-worker shook her head at one of our less-than-incisive editorials and asked who was in charge of the opinion page. A colleague immediately answered, "Two men who are very comfortable in their jobs." I thought of Mr. Top-Level Parley and completely agreed.

What about "panel" for "commission" or "committee"? We lean on that one regularly.

We used "cop" in a headline twice last month and got a couple of complaints -- not from the police, who don't seem to mind -- but from readers who think it's disrespectful.

Long ago I worked at a daily paper 25 miles from where many supermarket tabloids are published.
For a story about tabloids fighting in court over ownership of a photo of Elizabeth Taylor I wrote the following headline:

Tabs in
tiff over
Liz pix

The slot editor nixed that hed.

This was challenging without a synonym; my brain kept supplying headlines like "Police shoot fugitive."
I'm okay with set and nab, but the others sound less okay to me - especially mull, which has connotations to me of one person (or maybe a family) struggling with a problem over a long period of time and a nice brandy. It's different than consider.
Heist is so 1920's.

Heh...I sort of automatically filled in the blanks for #1-4 with a version of "EYE" -- eyed, eyes, eyeing.

I hate that word in headlines.

"Tabs in
tiff over
Liz pix"

This is beyond headlinese--it's poetry!

It's as good as "Headless body found in topless bar."

Great quiz. However, I think I should get credit for "snuffs tax on cigars" and "union snubs offer," which would give me eight right. For the record, as a youthful slot chief in 1964 I rejected what I believe was the last headline ever written containing the verb phrase "hurls defi."

I had "nixes" for #2. And Bush "crony."

Lots more in the sports pages: cagers, gridders, harriers (cross-country runners; from my high-school-paper days.)

I love the colorful lingo, but these days I'd settle for correct spelling. This hed appeared in today's San Francisco Chronicle: "Incumbent Berkeley mayor, predecessor to dual for office again." I guess duelling twice makes it a "dual."

Tim Harrower, in his wonderful "The Newspaper Designer's Handbook," has a perfect example of headlinese in his introduction:

I don't know of a better bad headline.

Headlinese apparently is a stubborn infection. It's been 18 years since I've had to write a 1-column, 3-line hed, but I still came out with 6 correct answers, and I tried to use "nix" once. Once a copyeditor, always a copyeditor, I guess!

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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