Friday, July 14, 2006

sPunmeisters: A Heddy Inquiry

Why do so many news headlines pun?

I've been mulling this question for some time, because Chicago editors especially revel in punning hedders. I, too, have been guilty of a few here: for example, "Between the Posts," the hed for my "Thinking Woman's Guide to Soccer," traded on three different meanings of the word "post."
1. Between the goal posts, or the frames containing soccer goal nets, and therefore what happens on the pitch, or how soccer is played. 2. Between the blog posts, as up until then I had been posting mainly about spelling bees and so forth, and thought that that post would be a one-off on soccer (not realizing how much I would generate from the World Cup) 3. Between the legs, as I began that piece with a riff on male private parts, to lead into observations concerning masculinity and sport.

If I were really keen here (and looking for a clever segue out of the World Cup), I should have started this post with some punning quips relating journalistic hedders to headers in soccer. After all, witness the many punning heds spun about ZiZou's devastatingly macho header on Sunday. But we're trying to move on here. Also, while I have been mulling this post for some time, it was finally precipitated not by Zidane, but by an argument I had with an editor at Slate over a sub-hedder there whose pithy salaciousness (I felt) was demeaning to both writers and readers of the on-line mag, inviting responses (in Slate's reader-response feature, "The Fray") of the worst, which is to say, ad hominem, kind. (Suffice to say, I gave it a red card for unsportsmanlike conduct.) It was an interesting exchange, and we managed to reach a fairly satisfying detente (the sub-hed having since been removed) . . . but the question remains for me: why pun at all? Aren't there other ways of grabbing readers' attention?

Of course, when I first learned that in journalism, the term is "hedder," not header or headline, my first reaction related to spelling. How interesting, I thought, that this field of professional writing distinguishes itself from other fields -- indeed from Standard American English (SAE) -- through spelling. Every trade has its jargon, but here the distinction in language extends to orthography. (Someone should write a dissertation about that -- oh, that's right, I did!)

Now: I am not a journalist, and have received no formal journalistic training. I am a lit crit type, and acknowledge full-out that academics are the worst culprits when it comes to punning titles (the paper I will be presenting at the MLA this year? "Manual Labour: Learning to Read the First Literacy Textbooks" -- mea culpa). But it strikes me that what's going on with academic puns has something to do with the way we revel, as a field, in the plasticity of language, our object of study (and our need, no doubt, to show we are clever).

Journalism works from a different set of materials and objectives. (Doesn't it?) While we are well beyond the stage when we expect "just the facts," and both writers and readers are now well-versed in spin, I find it peculiar that news stories, whose authority rests on "getting the facts right" (if such a thing were possible), lead off with phrases that effectively mislead the reader, by directing the reader to other meanings of words often wholly unrelated to the story that follows.

I wonder, do some types of periodicals pun more than others? That is, if we go down the journalistic hierarchy, from the first-tier publications to the broadsheets, would we find more puns in headlines, or puns of a different variety? The English tabloids, for example, thrive on gross puns: could we associate their punning with their avowed sensationalism, and the headline decorum of the Times or the Guardian with their waning stately manner? (anybody get that one?! tee hee I am terrible) Is there an ethical connection between the semantic scrupulousness of any given paper's headlines and its pretense to a certain journalistic integrity (to the extent that punners in blogs can get away scot-free. . . did they cover this at that KosMart out in Vegas)?

In the spirit of research, I'm going to start my own collection of gross journalistic puns. Not necessarily salacious. Just interesting. (To heady nerds like me.)

No comments: