May 03, 2006

Busting he(a)ds at the Express-News

We've complained in the past about inane punning headlines in newspapers and magazines, but now one editor is doing something about it. Via Nicole Stockdale's A Capital Idea comes news that Robert Rivard, editor of the San Antonio Express-News, has instituted a ban on puns in his paper's headlines. According to a piece by Express-News public editor Bob Richter, the decision came after Rivard flipped through the April 20 edition and found no less than nine puns in the headlines (or "heds," as they're known to journalists). Rivard then sent a stern email to his news editors, making it clear that the pun ban is no joke. Richter quotes from the email as follows:

"It's a shame to see the good work of so many disparaged because of the immaturity of a few headline writers who seem more focused on peer approval than on producing a quality newspaper for the community. ...
"I am prepared to take disciplinary action against our most senior headline writers and editors if my order is not respected. I do not want to be the editor of a newspaper where we limit the creative use of language ... I want even less to be the editor of a newspaper riddled with puns."

Richter's article clarifies that reporters aren't the ones responsible for the pundemic outbreak of paranomasia in the newsroom:

A reporter whose byline appears on a story does NOT write the headline. Headlines are written by copy editors, who battle deadlines to clean up or rewrite the reporter's copy, massage it, then crown it with a spiffy headline.
Generally, copy editors have small egos. Many are former reporters who prefer the relative solitude of the newsroom late at night to the limelight of chasing news. Their goal is to, anonymously, make a story better.
Copy editors are underappreciated, taken for granted and typically go unnoticed unless they "bust a hed," miss a factual or grammatical mistake, or — worse — insert an error in their editing. Now, puns are a no-no for them as well.

I dislike lazy puns in headlines as much as the next reader, but this sort of blanket prohibition is clearly over the top. As Nicole Stockdale writes, "There are occasional strokes of brilliance where good word play perfectly fits the tone of the story, where it adds nuance that a straight hed wouldn't." The Editoress at Words At Work agrees, and she further points out that not all of the offending headlines are puns in the narrow technical sense. I've arranged the five heds cited by Richter in decreasing order of punniness, understood in the traditional sense of paranomasia (a playful use of words that sound alike but differ in meaning):

"Old well ends well: River Walk threat wiped out"

"Bell's name doesn't have a familiar ring for many voters"

"(Pope) Benedict names a flock of new cardinals"

"Mumps outbreak swells"

"Border violence killing tourism"

"Old well ends well" is clearly a pun (and the most creative of the five headlines), as it plays on the saying "All's well that ends well" via the phonetic similarity of old and all, along with the polysemy of well. The second hed relies only on polysemy, combining the surname Bell with the idiomatic sense of a name "ringing a bell" or "having a ring to it." The third example playfully suggests the avian sense of cardinals by using the collective noun flock. And the last two examples don't rely on puns so much as figurative extensions of verbs to match the subjects they predicate. An outbreak of mumps swells (figuratively) just as the disease itself causes (literal) swelling, and border violence kills tourism (figuratively) just as the violence itself causes (literal) killing.

Though these headlines might not all be puns per se, they do suggest a certain light-heartedness that may well be inappropriate for the topics at hand. The last example strikes a particularly incongruous tone for such a serious matter — so much so that I wonder if the use of the word killing was intended only in its figurative sense, perhaps inserted by an overworked copy editor not mindful of the tactless suggestion of literal killing. Would the headline writer face disciplinary action from Rivard even if the wordplay was inadvertent? I sympathize for the Express-News copy editors who will now have wrathful hed-hunters looking over their shoulders.

(See A Capital Idea for links to further discussion about when punning headlines work and when they don't.)

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at May 3, 2006 05:26 PM