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It's all in the headlines

Posted: Wednesday, February 01, 2006

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone,"it means just what I choose it to mean'"

- Lewis Carroll

My 7-year-old granddaughter and I are enjoying a new game. We made it up ourselves, after we worked out a pronunciation problem.

"No, Honey, there's no "m" at the beginning of synonym, and cinnamon and synonym are not synonyms." It was the latter word that became the title of our game - after she learned how to say it. The first round went something like this, I of the first word, she of the second:

Little - small! Dark - night! Dog - puppy! Girl - sister!

Grandma - happy, as I watched her quick mind grasp a new idea. English has so many words that there is more than one way to say the same thing. Someday she'll also learn that, synonyms aside, many English words by themselves have more than one meaning.

As a crossword puzzle fan I encounter this concept often. For example, when the clue said,"stable moms," I thought "grandmothers" or stay-at-home moms," and smiled when the desired answer was"mares." I had the same miscue after "can opener" and "2 on the phone." No, as my restricted number of letters conveyed, the answers couldn't be"gadget or friends." High-tech vs. old school, I had to admit, when the correct words turned out to be"tab" and"ABC."

Other than crossword clues, I'm guessing no other venue comes up with more double entendres than newspaper headlines. The writer, or copy editor, may mean one thing but, minus the little words, nouns can become verbs or vice versa and those double-meaning words slide right off their verbal track. Readers are then left to decipher meanings by guess or from their own experience.

Check out the following list of actual headlines, and see what your experience tells you they mean. But be careful: some are like optical illusions. You have to play with them awhile before the"scene" changes and you spot the inappropriate word choice some sleepy editor didn't catch. (Note: That never happens at The News-Times.)

- Study Finds Fire Retardant in Great Lakes

- President Bush to Speak on War on Terror in Kansas

- Crack found on Governor's Daughter

- Something Went Wrong in Jet Crash, Expert Says

- Police Begin Campaign to Run Down Jaywalkers

- Miners Refuse to Work After Death

- Juvenile Court to Try Shooting Defendant

- War Dims Hopes for Peace

- If Strike Isn't Settled Quickly, It May Last Awhile

- Cold Wave Linked to Temperatures

- London Couple Slain; Police Suspect Homicide

- Red Tape Holds Up New Bridges

- Man Struck By Lightning, Faces Battery Charge

- New Study of Obesity Looks for Larger Test Group

- Astronaut Takes Blame for Gas in Spacecraft

- Kids Make Nutritious Snacks

- Local High School Dropouts Cut in Half

- Hospitals Sued by 7 Foot Doctors

- Typhoon Rips Through Cemetery; Hundreds Dead

And this just in from my gifted, never misleading writer friend, Shirley Stevens, way up in Pittsburgh Steeler land:

When the prince and princess wanted to play, the queen suggested they go outside and draw on the walls of the ditch surrounding the castle. Know what this graffiti came to be called?"Moat's art." (Written in honor of W. A. Mozart's 250th birthday last week.)

(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to


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