“Shock” (attributive noun)

I was lucky enough to attend the British Open (Americans’ term for The Open Championship) in Scotland in 1999. After the second round, a French golfer, Jean van de Velde, who had won only one tournament in his career, improbably went ahead by a stroke. I snagged this poster from a newsstand and it still hangs in my house:


(The shocks would continue. Wikipedia says: “[Paul] Lawrie, down by ten strokes at the start of the fourth round, completed the biggest final round comeback in major championship history, headlined by van de Velde’s triple-bogey at the last hole.” The tournament ended in a three-way tie among Lawrite, van de Velde and another golfer, and Lawrie won the playoff.)

What caught my eye on the poster was the unusual, to me, use of “shock” as an attributive noun, meaning “shocking.” I later encountered other instances in the British press. There’s no relevant entry in Dictionary.com or Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary but the Oxford English Dictionary has a brief one: “of things that startle or shock.” The only example is a 1974 “heading” (US: “headline”) from The Times: “Shock news is broken to EEC ministers.”

Fortunately, Lynne Murphy of Separated by a Common Language wrote a substantial post about this “shock” in 2015. She reported a communication from David Sewell, an editor at the University of Virginia:

Some time within the last year or so I started noticing the distinctive usage of the phrase “shock poll” in the British news media; since then it seems to have migrated to the US, though apparently not in major news outlets. It appears so far as I can tell to mean simply “poll with startling results”, with adjectival “shock”. Some googling shows that “shock survey” and “shock study” are out there as well.

Is this use of “shock” as an adjective in fact coming out of British newspaperese, and is its usage spreading beyond a delimited set of nouns?

Lynne went to the corpora and was able to answer “yes” to the questions in the last sentence; some of the other nouns to which it’s been attached–all from British sources–are “victory,” “departure,” “resignation,” and “decision.”

Tantalizingly, Mr. Sewell didn’t explain why he thought the usage had migrated to the U.S. I for one had certainly never encountered it here until yesterday, when I read this sentence from a Washington Post dispatch in my local paper. (Emphasis added; the reference is to Trump’s announcement that he would raise tariffs on aluminum and steel, and was looking forward to a trade war.)

In an unorthodox presidency in which emotion, impulse and ego often drive events, Mr. Trump’s ominous moods manifested themselves last week in his zigzagging positions on gun control; his shock trade war that jolted markets and was opposed by Republican leaders and many in his own administration; and his roiling feud of playground insults with Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

This is filed under “On the radar” and I don’t especially expect it to ascend to larger acceptance here. One reason is that, being short, it’s especially useful for headlines in print newspapers. And it would take a shock reversal for print newspapers to start being important again.


11 thoughts on ““Shock” (attributive noun)

  1. Punch used to make fun of the frequent use of “Shock Horror” in newspaper headlines. Could “Shock” simply be short for “Shocking”? One of those space-saving abridgements printers sometimes make?

    1. As is mentioned in the blog pointed to, in UK usage there is a difference between “shock” and “shocking”. A shock result is unexpected, a shocking result is one that horrifies or disgusts you. A shock election could lead to a shocking result for the party calling the election.

  2. I feel like I see phrases like “shock election results” or “shock announcement” fairly frequently, but googling those phrases just seems to demonstrate that I get a lot of my news from the British (internet) press.

  3. Pet hate is when people say ” is in shock” meaning “really affected by some shocking news” as if its an officially diagnosed medical condition. There *IS* an officially diagnosed medical condition called “in shock” which refers to catastrophic blood loss, not “having been surprised”.

    1. So far as I can tell, this medical diagnosis has only been official since the 70s, so you’re saying that masses of people who use the phrase as it was intended for centuries are wrong because an elite group of doctors decided to redefine it. Seems rather like demanding that people stop saying, “he worked feverishly,” unless they can demonstrate that the subject has a temperature above 99.5 degrees Fahrenheit.

      1. Very interesting, thank you! I would still argue that the medical usage of a term does not automatically negate its established popular usage.

      2. 99.5 Fahrenheit? I’m tempted to say, what’s that in real money, but I’d guess that’s a Britishism that hasn’t crossed the Atlantic.

    2. “Shock” in medical usage refers to a serious drop in systolic blood pressure. It can arise from multiple causes. “Catastrophic” blood loss is but one cause of shock.

  4. We call it The Open. I consider the shock in the poster as tabloidese. There isn’t much room for long words in The Sun when you have narrow paper and thick type. Even the broadsheet newspapers have changed to tabloid format. Most of them have, anyway.
    The only ways I would use Shock horror are as here, in Chambers:
    shock horror exclamation, colloq an ironic expression used in response to something purporting or claiming to shock.
    shock-horror adj used eg of banner headlines and other sensationalistic devices of the tabloid press.
    I would never use it of the news itself, as it was used at the end of the post Ben linked to.

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