Shock, horror, confusion

JUST OCCASIONALLY there are spectacularly piquant examples of the headline writer's art. Everyone knows "Freddy Starr ate my hamster" and "Gotcha!".

But what really entertains me is the daily diet of routine and barmily opaque messages.

What about these, from just one page of one day's Guardian sport: "Terry's return from back surgery delayed by calf hitch", "Axed Beckham nears exit door at Real Madrid" and "Benitez rounds on penny-pinching Anfield board after Arsenal debacle".

I'm one of those happily benighted souls who believe that football is a game for gentlemen played by hooligans (as distinct from rugby, which is the opposite). I have never attended a football match and am unlikely to do so unless forced. Even so, I do have some obscure understanding of the matters to which these attempts at communication might refer. But what on earth does the first of these creative spasms mean?

Has Terry been restrained by a half hitch to some railing or other? Do they mean a "calf itch"? And if hours of analysis (or reading the article) do eventually reveal that Mr Terry's progress has been impeded by something wrong with his leg, what has this got to do with back surgery? Is his leg bone connected to his back bone in some innovative manner? I'm baffled.

Next, how can an "axed Beckham" near an exit door? If axed, why not disabled from further motion? Is "to near" a verb and, if so, in which language? And does Real Madrid - club, stadium or what - have an "exit door"?

The third headline helpfully comes with a translation in the first sentence of the story: "Rafael Benitez has rejected criticism of his managerial methods at Liverpool and indicated that the supporters' complaints should be redirected towards the club's board of directors." This is English prose of the "our postilion has been struck by lightning" school, pronounced through clenched teeth and firmly tightened sphincter.

Perhaps this style should be applied to the world of education. Go on, have a shot at furrowing the footie fans' brows.

"Feisty paddy spurns school watchdog's former pitch." Now that's got to be about former Leeds manager David O'Leary declining to take up the offer of training facilities from the caretaker of his alma mater. Hasn't it?

"700,000 walk in class cash slash exodus." Now you're really getting the hang of it. Complete ambiguity. Alliteration. Assonance. Or, as we inspectors call it, "Total b."

David Sherlock is Chief Inspector of the Adult Learning Inspectorate

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