Why do tabloid headlines use so many puns? A recent New York Post advertising campaign plastered the slogan "headlines that make headlines" all over NYC's subways. Sometimes, those headlines about headlines happen because someone at the Post used particularly poor judgment, but that doesn't seem to matter. Controversy "sells," that's understood, but not all puns are controversial, so why is this particular linguistic tool the go-to technique for tabloids, and for how long?
"Readers expect them, and we’re in the habit of it," a writer for the New York Daily News, who wished to remain anonymous, tells Hopes&Fears. Is there any quantifiable evidence that puns sell more papers? Probably not. "This seems like exactly the sort of arcana that takes shape just before better data, like, for instance, how it was easier to justify international bureaus on prestige before we had the hard numbers about audiences’ preference for kittens and celebrity cleavage."
Recently, the Post found itself trending on Twitter when the headline “Enjoy A Footlong In Jail” ran alongside Subway spokesman Jared Fogle, the morning after he appeared in a federal court to plead guilty to having sex with minors and distributing child porn.
Punning the Subway slogan with an encouragement of prison rape caused a media backlash. “Stop the Jared Fogle ‘footlong’ jokes: Why do we still find prison rape acceptable, let alone funny?” Salon’s headline read. “The Post… seems to be of the opinion that the only way to fight a rapist is with more rape,” wrote Gothamist. In contrast, The New York Daily News used the less controversial punned headline “Sub Human” for the same news item. It’s unlikely anyone at the New York Post supports prison rape, but they do support a sensational headline. No such thing as bad publicity, right?
Google search results:
New york Post footlong headline
About 229,000 results
Daily News sub human headline
About 94,600 results*
*with most articles referring to the Post headline or unrelated. Note: These Google search results are of questionable statistical value.
HOLY SHIITE! AND OTHER SHITTY PUNS
It wasn’t always this way. In the preface to Headless Body in Topless Bar, a book collection of headlines from the New York Post, Robert Walsh wrote “back in the day, Post heads were as staid and conventional as any other paper’s.” He believes the change occurred after Dorothy Schiff sold the tabloid to Australian-born media tycoon Rupert Murdoch in 1976. After that, “headlines rapidly shifted from the pedestrian and institutional to the rollicking and attitudinal.”
The New York Daily News, a rival publication of the Post, was dropping pun headlines decades earlier. In The Pun Also Rises, Pollack dates one of the first examples of a punning headline to an issue of the New York Daily News in 1940. There was a posh New Year’s Eve party at the Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Center. A blonde bombshell doing the conga intentionally flashed the crowded dance floor, caught the attention of the entire room, and brought the orchestra to a halt. The incident also brought us one of the first prominent tabloid headline puns: “Amateur Strip Tease Titillates Rainbow Room.” The jump continued the theme with “Happy Nude Year.”
Today’s tabloid headlines are typically more complex — or at least more clever. Consider the recent headline “Deleter of the Free World” for a Hillary Clinton story in the New York Post. Beyond seizing upon the similarity in the sounds of “deleter” with “the leader” (Clinton admitted that she deleted more than 30,000 personal emails during her time in office), the headline also serves as a bit of an editorial opinion. You don’t need to know the New York Post is owned by Rupert Murdoch to guess it won’t be supporting Hillary Clinton as a 2016 presidential candidate. Similarly, “Good Noose” made it clear where the tabloid's editorial staff stood on Saddam Hussein’s execution.
Perhaps more than any other reason, the headlines exist to entertain their audience. The more their puns amuse readers—be it macabre cracks about dead terrorists or harmless quips about political tweets—the greater the copy desk’s pride.
“Nothing gives me greater satisfaction than watching someone thumbing through the Post on the subway and breaking into a smile, almost on cue, when he or she turns a page and is immediately tickled by one of the heads. That’s my silent fist-pump ‘Yes!’ moment.”
-New York Post’s copy chief Barry Gross, as quoted by Robert Walsh in Headless Body in Topless Bar
NO GOOD DEED GOES UNPUNISHED
Puns get a bad reputation. Not just an unfortunate way in which language gets abused, puns are actually one of the primary building blocks on which it has developed.
Dr. Don Nilsen, Professor Emeritus of Linguistics at Arizona State University and co-founder of the International Society for Humor Studies, tells Hopes&Fears that the reason puns have been valuable is because of the importance of play in all areas of human development. “Puns are an example of language play, and language play is like any other kind of play. It’s practice. Puns are plays on words. They make us more mentally acute,” he says. “There’s a paradox that says all speech is ambiguous, but no speech is ambiguous. The reason that’s a paradox and not a contradiction is that if you look at individual words, phrases, or sentences, they’re ambiguous. But if you look at the context, that ambiguity is resolved. With puns, very often the ambiguity is not resolved, and, in fact, it’s played upon.” In general, this “sharpens up our linguistic skills.”
When asked why puns are generally considered a form of low-brow humor, Dr. Nilsen tells us that there are two kinds of puns. The ones you don’t notice, that “work to develop wherever the text is going,” and the ones you do, that “sort of derail the text and say ‘stop the development of the plot, and listen to me as I develop this pun.’”
It's about sophistication and context. A pun can play on a situation or the properties of a character, which expands the text through shorthand. It can also be an easy route to a dick joke, which is, well, a dick joke. This doesn’t mean that a writer can’t do both. Shakespeare “has sophisticated puns, which serve to further the play, but he also has puns for unsophisticated people because he wanted to appeal to a broad audience. His puns for unsophisticated people; a lot of them were scatalogical or a double entendre.”
In the context of tabloids using puns, Dr. Nilsen proposes that “Puns are very often used as grabbers, something that will get you into the piece, something that tells the reader this is an interesting writer. They think, ‘I want to read this because it’s going to be fun, and it’s going to be interesting because it’s written by someone who’s sophisticated with language use.’”
The level of sophistication that tabloid writers are operating on is probably up for debate, but, according to Dr. Nilsen, most tabloids are at least working on two levels in that they occupy a space between fiction and nonfiction.
“It’s in that twilight zone in between. It’s supposed to be non-fiction, it’s supposed to be the truth, but they’re very fast and loose with the truth. It’s like gonzo journalism. It’s mostly true, but also very, very funny. In a way, they’re testing gullibility.” This test isn’t necessarily lost on readers and is part of the appeal. Dr. Nilsen says, “Like Shakespeare, they’re writing for a double audience. They’re writing for one audience that will enjoy it because they think it’s true, and they’re writing for another audience who will enjoy it because they think it’s not true.”
"Puns are “the lowest form of verbal joke, probably because they are the cheapest – can be made with the least trouble…[and] merely form a sub-species of the group which reaches its peak in the play upon words proper."
- Sigmund Freud, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious
HOW TO GIVE GOOD HEAD
Who writes these headlines? Hopes&Fears spoke with Deborah Pines, a copy editor at the New York Post. The copy desk at the Post is around five to seven people. They come in later than other staff, around mid-afternoon, after the reporters have already had some of the day to work on their stories. The copy editors catch mistakes, typos, and misspellings in articles. They chop articles to fit in the space they’re designed for, and they write the headlines.
That includes the front page, which is called “the wood”. The term refers to when tabloid newspapers were still printed using typesetting machines. For the inside copy, the letters were made out of metal, but for the front page’s screaming large type, the letters were made out of wood.
When it comes to giving the wood good head, a lot of departments have their say. It’s usually decided around 3:00 p.m. what the front page story will be unless current events cause a last minute change. Once the cover story is decided, news, feature, and especially the copy desk brainstorm ideas for the wood.
Sometimes it’s people calling out ideas, other times they’ll be submitted in writing. Like any good brainstorm, sometimes it’s a case of ideas building and bouncing off each other.
As for the inside pages, each copy editor is assigned their own stories to write heads for. With a ton of stories coming in at the end of the day, they need to be able to write good lines quickly. To be prepared, Pines keeps an arsenal of certain phrases or words to use for recurring topics.
“If I get a story about the MTA or subway, ideally I would like to have a very original headline, but we’re working under the pressure of a deadline,” she says. “What’s great is that I know I have certain words that I use, or that I can re-use. So for a subway story, I always can say ‘plans on track.’ I can say it’s ‘off-track.’ I could say ‘it’s going rail-ly well.’ For a school story, I can say it ‘makes the grade’ or that it’s a ‘class act.’”
Certain copy editors may have their own favorite words they like to use again and again. Pines is particularly fond of the word “brouhaha.” It’s the gift that keeps on giving. A controversial story concerning coffee or beer could use “brewhaha,” or a story about fear might use a “boohaha.” Pines even recalls throwing in a “Hebrew-haha.”
Thinking of phrases used in prior headlines can also be the path leading to the original gems that make the cover. For a story of a JetBlue pilot going nuts mid-air, Pines came up with “This Is Your Captain Freaking.” It ran alongside a photo of the pilot being restrained in a chair. She first thought of all the previous puns they’ve used for airline stories: “Plane Nuts,” “Jet Blue-natic,” “Freakin’ Flier,” before the light bulb went off.
The not so funny history of puns
The relationship between puns and humor is a relatively new one. Puns had a religious connotation in ancient Babylonia and Greece, and could even lead to armed conflict. “There is reason to believe that puns are as old as language itself, and so go back 10,000+ years,” Salvatore Attardo, a professor at Texas A&M University–Commerce, and the author of the book Linguistic Theories of Humor tells Hopes&Fears. “Jesus uses a pun in the Greek and Latin version of the New Testament. Petrus/Peter and ‘petra’ rock (as in ‘upon this rock I will build my church’).”
The Internet is obviously a great asset, with easy access to thesauruses, homonyms, and synonyms. For a story on the burqa-wearing, heavy metal Muslim musician Gisele Marie, Pines consulted a list of band names to come up with, “Call this gal Burq Sabbath.” Making sure the references aren’t too obscure is also important. Inside jokes are to be avoided, but, on the other hand, everyone hasn’t heard every reference, so the copy editors may need to ask around to make sure at least a good majority of readers will get the pun.
Since the Post is always trying to be naughty or crude, anything that plays on or rhymes with curse words is popular. There are plenty of “Pluck You” or “Get Mucked” headlines. A story about two guys getting in a fight on a plane was “Sit Storm”. And if any New York librarians try to start trouble, they’ll have a headline waiting for them: “Librarians Are Full Of Shhh…”
“I think quite often we walk a fine line between humor and bad taste,” says Pines. “We’re trying to be funny, but like anybody else trying to be funny, we can be offensive as well.”
A plethora of puns
John Pollack, in his book The Pun Also Rises, dedicates a whole chapter to the pun’s etymology and definitions. Linguists, philosophers, and comedians categorize puns into different types.
Homographic puns riff off of words that are spelled the same, but have completely different meanings, such as “sap”. Homophonic puns, on the other hand, take full advantage of words that sound alike (either generally or identically), like “mussel” and “muscle”. There are also paradigmatic puns, syntagmatic puns, and visual puns. Visual puns are the oldest types of puns, with hard evidence of them appearing in 35,000-year-old caves of Europe and the Middle East.
CYBERPUNKS AND THE FUTURE OF WORDPLAY
The future of the pun, like the future of the media landscape, is uncertain. The writer from the New York Daily News who wished to remain annonymous believes the tradition may be most appropriate on the printed page. After all, a pun is just going to confuse the SEO bots that are so critical for online traffic. A pun might be considered unsophisticated, but try to explain to an algorithm what “Yanks pull Wang, find relief” means and you won’t even get a chuckle, much less a page view. With constant lay-offs and dwindling ad dollars in the print industry, pun-haters may be rejoicing sooner than later.
But the pun lives on, possibly in its more respectable form. Hip-hop lyrics are especially filled with puns, and their lines are rewarded with critical acclaim and sales. According to Metacritic, five of the top 10 best-rated albums since 2001 are hip-hop records. Number four on that list is Kendrick Lamar’s "To Pimp A Butterfly." In his lyrics, he’s all about the useful homonym, and when it’s time for business and promotion he keeps the puns coming. He recently paired up with Sweetgreen at the Sweetlife Festival to create his own salad. The salad’s name: Beets Don’t Kale My Vibe.
As for the future of the low-brow pun, Dr. Nilsen believes we should look to the meme. “It’s bringing language and pictures together,” he says. “With memes, there’s always a pun, there’s always a punchline. It’s just one line, but that’s not the whole joke. The rest of the joke is visual. So you have the visual and the linguistic coming together, and there’s usually some sort of a clash.” One of Dr. Nilsen’s favorite memes is the Philosoraptor, a Velociraptor who waxes philosophic with questions like, “If physics has laws, who governs it.” The pun is all in knowing that you’re looking at a Velociraptor and you make the connection, otherwise the bedroom philosophy paired with a dinosaur doesn’t make any sense.
“A lot of millennial humor is very short and sophisticated,” Dr. Nilsen says. And that ‘Twilight Zone’ between fact and fiction continues as well. He says, “Whenever we see something, we don’t know if it’s been played with or not—if it’s a pun or if it’s the truth. One of the things that millennials are really, really good at is figuring out the truth of a visual pun.” As an admirer of a good pun, Dr. Nilsen believes the future is bright, “Once things become digital, it allows you to bring a bunch of stuff together.”
When all you can do is pun
Witzelsucht is a rare disorder in which a person constantly speaks in puns and jokes, and is generally compelled to discuss topics in an inappropriate situation. The disorder is believed to have been first discovered by psychiatrist Dr. A.A. Brill in 1929, but very few in-depth case studies have been performed. It is unknown whether those afflicted with Witzelsucht are any funnier because of it, but it has been observed that they rarely laugh at other people’s jokes. The disorder also been linked to hypersexuality and scatalogical thoughts which raises the intriguing possibility that toilet humor and puns are being handled by the same area of the brain.
Additional reporting: Kelsey Lawrence