Words, Meanings and Context

Written 1996 by Steven Lewis

"Bank robbed, police fired" was a headline in yesterday's local newspaper. The ambiguity of the headline brought to my consciousness memories of a book by my late editing teacher, John Bremner (1920-87). Dr. Bremner was no general semanticist, but he did put on a stimulating class. I would characterize Dr. Bremner as a person who believed in the true meaning of words. If he didn't literally believe it, he wished so much that it were true that it affected his teaching.

Dr. Bremner called his book "HTK," which was journalism shorthand for "Headline To Come." In it Dr. Bremner collected some of the cleverest, most ambiguous and potentially libelous headlines from the nation's newspapers. And he did this long before Jay Leno was a household name. Here are some samples:

Campus Group Plans Liberation of Women 'Pill' Hearings Cause Pregnancies Beauty Unveils Bust at Ceremony Many Antiques at DAR Meeting Mr. McClusky Will Give Free Goose to 4-H Girls Missouri Pacific to Drop Passengers from 3 Trains Avoid Having Baby At the Dinner Table President Eats Turkey, Lays a Cornerstone Police Stoned in Hartford Escaped Leopard Believed Spotted Youth of 80 Lands At Rally in India Jones Will Fight Hinges on Baby Catholic Women Hear Seeing Eye Dog Talk First Lady Arrives In Virgin Islands Fatal Attack Wasn't First For Nasser Ike Says Nixon Can't Stand Pat

Broad to Be Honored
As Man of the Year

Helen Wills Moody
On 3-Week Honeymoon

Actor Accidentally Shot in Debut

4-H Girl Wins Contest
As Best Hoer in County

Farmer Interred Is Not Dead

Cemetery Gets Praise
From Former Resident

Girl Becomes Methodist
After Delicate Operation

Auto Hits Pedestrian
Without a Tail Light

Man Shot in Head
Accidentally Dies

Man Pulls Needle from Foot
He Swallowed 66 Years Ago

Nazis Bomb Belfast;
No Catholics Killed

Priest Turns Holy Roller
As His Car Turns Turtle

Deaf Man Will Have
New Hearing in Court

Genesis Row Causes
Second Prof's Exodus

Canadian Club Finishes Fifth

The moral of the story is that words have no intrinsic meanings. They evoke meanings in us. The specific meanings they evoke in us depend on the context in which a word is used as well as the experiences of the evaluator. Sometimes we do not initially grasp the intended meaning of the communicator, but supply an alternative meaning. On further analysis, we then may realize the inappropriateness of our initial response. Sometimes the results can be humorous.
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