Grammar of Newspaper Headlines

Newspaper headlines are a dialect of English in their own right. They don’t operate under the same grammatical and stylistic rules that normal prose does. In a brief post on the Lingua Franca blog, Allan Metcalf outlines the basic rules that govern headline writing.

I’ve never seen these rules codified before. It’s kind of neat.

Beowulf MS Now Online

The British Library has put the Beowulf manuscript on line. Beowulf starts on folio 132r. The library’s announcement is here.

The manuscript, London, British Library, Cotton Vitellius A.xv, contains two separate codices that have been bound together. The first, the Southwick Codex, occupies the first ninety-three folios. The Beowulf manuscript, also known as the Nowell Codex after sixteenth century antiquarian Laurence Nowell who owned it at one point, follows on 94r and contains five Old English works, a life of St. Christopher, a description of the Wonders of the East, Alexander’s Letter to Aristotle, and two poems, Beowulf and a verse translation of the book of Judith. The date of the composition of Beowulf is unknown, but the manuscript, the only surviving copy of the poem, was copied c. 1010 C.E.

The manuscript was badly damaged in a 1731 fire at the aptly named Ashburnam House. As a result, the manuscript pages have been bound in paper frames to prevent further deterioration.

full monty

This British phrase, meaning the whole thing, dates to at least 1979, and it’s of unknown origin. No one knows what or who monty refers to.

The earliest known use of the phrase is in the 30 August 1979 issue of The Stage and Television Today in which one of the members of a singing duo describes how they were discovered by a talent agent:

We went out one Friday night to a pub with the boys and after a while we got up and sang a song. There was a fellow sitting there with the full monty on, big gold rings, all that. “I’m from London,” he said. “You come back with me and I’ll sign you up.”

The sense meaning total nudity stems from the 1997 film of that title. Prior to the movie, the full monty did not especially connote nudity. From Simon Beaufoy’s script:

Horse: No one said owt about going the full monty to me...
Gaz: We’ve got to give ‘em something your average ten-bob stripper don’t.

While we have no idea where the phrase actually comes from, that hasn’t stopped people from proffering explanations. Here are a few. None of these have any reliable evidence to support them:

  • It refers to Field Marshal Montgomery’s habit of meticulously planning his assaults, including intensive and detailed artillery preparations;
  • It refers to Montgomery in full-dress uniform with all his medals;
  • It refers to Montgomery’s habit of eating a large breakfast each morning;
  • Breakfast, but not Montgomery’s, instead it’s the one served by Mrs. Montague at the Lennox Cafe in Bognor Regis, West Sussex;
  • It refers to expensive formal clothing purchased at the tailor shop of Montague Burton;
  • It is gambler’s slang derived from the game of three-card Monte;
  • It is a corruption of the full amount;
  • It derives from a television commercial for fruit juice in which an actor asks for the full Del Monte;
  • Finally, it could come from Australian and New Zealand slang, a monty being a bet (especially on a horse) that is a sure thing.


Shapiro, Fred, ”Times (London) Article on My Antedating of ‘Full Monty,’” ADS-L, 8 February 2013.

Oxford English Dictionary, New Edition.

J. K. Chambers on The Great Vowel Shift

University of Toronto linguistics professor J. K. “Jack” Chambers was on CBC radio Sunday talking about the Great Vowel Shift. It’s one of the better explanations of the topic in under ten minutes that I’ve heard. And radio is a much better medium to explain sound changes than anything in writing. There’s probably not much here for those that already know about the topic, but if you don’t or are still confused by the Great Vowel Shift, it’s well worth a listen.

Twenty Words We (Probably) Don’t Owe to William Shakespeare

A 31 January posting on the Mental Floss website has been making the rounds of Facebook and other social media sites. The post, by Roma Panganiban, lists twenty words that Shakespeare allegedly coined. The post is unadulterated bardolatry. Yes, Shakespeare was the greatest English playwright and a pretty darn good poet as well, but he was not a literary superman, and claims that he coined thousands of words have been around for years. Panganiban claims some “2200 never-before-seen words” that can be attributed to Shakespeare, although I have no idea where she gets this number.

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Video: History of the Possessive

This is a fun video, and at first blush seems pretty accurate.

ObQuibble: I question the use of the year 450 as the benchmark for Old English. That’s about the time the first Anglo-Saxons were landing in England. Most of our evidence for the language comes from several centuries later. The earliest texts of any length we have are from the eighth century. And virtually all the poetry that survives was copied down in the tenth or eleventh centuries. So it’s not really a thousand-year jump from Old English to Chaucer in the late fourteenth. It’s more like 500–700 years.

[Discuss this post]

Close, But No Cigar

The phrase close, but no cigar is traditionally uttered when someone falls just short of achieving a goal. The phrase comes to us from the early twentieth-century practice of giving out cigars as prizes for winning games of chance or skill at carnivals, fairs, and other attractions. As I am writing this, the earliest known use of the phrase is from 1929, although the phrase is almost certainly older, and antedatings may yet be found.

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The Violence Must End

4 Copy Editors Killed In Ongoing AP Style, Chicago Manual Gang Violence

Books Read, 2012

Like last year, I’m publishing a list of the books I’ve read over the previous year. There are about as many titles as last year, but the total word count is lower given that many of them are poems. But then, many are also in Old English, so reading is much slower and more intensive.

Many of the books were on my PhD special field reading list or critical works I read in preparation for that exam.

Those marked with an asterisk are re-reads. I’ve read them before.

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spitting image

Spitting image or spit and image (sometimes reanalyzed as splitting image) stems from the metaphor of spitting out an exact likeness of oneself.

The metaphor appears as early as 1602 when Nicholas Breton writes in his book Wonders Worth Hearing, “twoo girles, [...] the one as like an Owle, the other as like an Urchin, as if they had beene spitte out of the mouthes of them.”

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