A strange mythological scene arose before the mind's eye upon reading the start of a headline on Monday: "Report of lion on loose sparks …" What could this lion on loose sparks be? A glorious, terrible apocalyptic beast, evidently, with flame and sparks flashing from under its feet. Then I read the rest of the headline "… sparks armed police hunt". The vision faded. It was just a noun-verb ambiguity brought on by the overused headline word "sparks". In Headlineland nothing is ever provoked, occasioned or simply caused, but always "sparked".
A big axe: Here's another ever-popular headline word, in a news headline published on Thursday: "Civil servants face axe in spending cuts." Short, vivid and dramatic, "axe" is perfect for headlines. But let's remember the image it evokes. The axe referred to is that of a forester felling a tree, or a headsman executing a prisoner. To fall victim to the axe is to be utterly destroyed. That may happen to, for instance, a government department that is abolished, but the civil servants are only losing their jobs. Are they really being axed?
Stick to the programme: Geoff Chandler writes from Manchester to draw attention to an inconsistency in a news story on Monday about the death of Neil Armstrong. The introductory blurb said: "Astronaut Neil Armstrong, who has died aged 82, was a reluctant icon who lamented Nasa's paring back of the space program." But in the same page a quotation from Armstrong, pulled out of the story and put in a talk bubble, was rendered thus: "It is sad we are turning the programme in a direction that will reduce motivation."
So, is it "program" or "programme"? Well, the former is the US spelling, the latter the British. This story seems to have gone rather American, which is not surprising considering the subject matter. In the text of the report, we had "program", but those responsible for the blurb and the bubble seem to have got into a bit of a tangle. We would have done better to follow this newspaper's usual style, which is to write "programme", except in the case of computer programs.
Floored: P J Vanston writes in to draw attention to this, from a news item in last Saturday's paper: "He fell short of the towpath, smashing his chin on the floor and falling backwards into the canal."
Yes, I think "floor" reads badly here, as if the towpath was carpeted or covered in pine flooring. "Ground" would have been better. But what is a floor and what is the ground? In general, a floor is indoors and artificial, whereas the ground is outside and natural. But what of the forest and ocean floors? Perhaps any surface thought of as defining the lower limit of the space above it can be called a floor. And even my venerable Shorter Oxford recognises "floor" as a general synonym for the ground, but dismisses it as "now dialect". Which dialect, I wonder ?
Clear the hall: This is from Thursday's report of the Paralympic opening ceremony, on Stephen Hawking: "His arrival was a remarkable entrance for a man more used to the hallways of academia." The "hallways" sound like a latter-day version of C P Snow's corridors of power. Surely, that should be the halls of academia, often called the "hallowed halls of academia". Or better still, don't bother with this cliché at all: think of something else.