Headlines readers like to read

The Boston Globe Sunday Ideas section continues to impress blogborygmi. First, the deputy editor called me to confirm some corrections to one of last week's articles. This act proves, once again, that the blogosphere does keep Big Media honest. At least, until Big Media comes calling, at which point bloggers start stammering and praising effusively.

Second, however, is this week's Jan Freeman column, in which she addresses a topic dear to me: cliches in headlines.

The reader who raised this issue, Jeff Smith, was complaining of too many uses of the same tired phrases (his Lexis search of "what's in a name" turned up 900 references in the past two years).

I wonder: how many citations did Smith encounter, on his own reading, over the past two years? No more than a dozen, I'd wager. And even though a dozen might seem like a cliche to some dedicated readers, it's the kind of subtle reinforcement of literature that binds a people together. Freeman explains:

E.D. Hirsch, that energetic crusader for a common culture, provides a neat illustration of the problem in his "New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy," the 2002 edition of his compendium of words and concepts literate Americans should know. Naturally, Juliet's "What's in a name" is here, along with "star-crossed lovers" and Hamlet's "The lady doth protest too much" and "to the manner born." ...

...In Hirsch's view, these are not junk cliches but essential elements of a shared American culture. If we swore off all our proverbs and familiar quotations, they would no longer be familiar -- they'd be back in cold storage with more obscure allusions like "perfidious Albion" and "Belshazzar's feast," familiar only to a well-read elite. That won't happen, of course: These phrases are well-worn precisely because they still have force in contemporary contexts; they make up one part (however threadbare) of the cultural fabric, recognized (however vaguely) by many speakers of English.

That still leaves the practical question -- how much use adds up to overuse? Editors make that calculation every day, judging whether a quotation, proverb, or turn of phrase is annoyingly or reassuringly familiar, used up or still amusing. Sometimes a fad gets out of hand, and warning flags fly around a newsroom: No more "kinder, gentler," or "'Tis the season," or "mother of all" anything!

...A cliche-checker could be set to ration a publication to, say one "Horatio Alger story" a month, or two Macbeth quotations, or six uses of "Orwellian." The job might be Herculean, or even Sisyphean, but hey -- if it's worth doing at all it's worth doing well.

Damn, she's good. Freeman gives insight into the minds of writers and editors, defends a practice we're all accustomed to but rarely question, and drops a lot of references, to boot.

I think she could go further and deny that these phrases are really cliche at all. Sure, all these phrases are indexed on the nifty cliche finder, but if you're using a common phrase in a new context, it ceases to be tired and instead, validates. These phrases serve as bona-fides that the writer's no hack; he or she demonstrates a command of the canon, which lends authority to what's being argued.

Also, I think these well-worn phrases act to familiarize and comfort readers, making them receptive to whatever new ideas are coming across. Readers need this kind of coddling! Check out this old dictum from an interview with fabled editor and headline-writer John Shea (via Romanesko):

Keep it conversational and never underestimate the pleasure derived from a doo-dah headline.

People don't just process printed matter in their heads, Shea would tell me. An inner voice reads them aloud, so it's important to consider how a headline sounds as well as what it says. Which is why conversational is so much better than those awkward, overpunctuated, language-of-their-own headlines that populate a lot of papers.

Headlines that follow the cadence of "Camptown ladies sing this song" are particularly popular. This point was driven home on an old Brunching Shuttlecocks entry: Twelve Actual AP Headlines Which, When Followed By 'Doo-Dah, Doo-Dah,' Can Be Sung To The Tune of 'Camptown Races'. My favorite example? "Man in Wheelchair Hit By Train."

Doo dah, doo dah. It's harder than it looks, as my own attempt (above) shows.