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SUBS NORMAL!: Puns bemuse newspaper readers as well as search engines


My father tormented my siblings and I with crashingly awful puns as children. As I have grown up and become a father I've found a certain delight in them myself. Maybe it's an age thing...

But the kings of this mode of wordplay have always been UK tabloid sub-editors. My all time favourite is the play on the Mary Poppins song Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, about a win by Inverness Caledonian Thistle against Celtic FC:

 The stock wisdom from a search engine optimisation point of view is that puns in headlines for news stories are a bad thing (unless people are going to search on a pun, which apart from the possible exception of my Dad, I don't think they do). what you want in a headline, you see, is words that people might actually search for.

Reading Peter Preston's Observer column at the weekend I note that he is of the opinion that puns in headlines are putting off potential non-native English speakers of print newspapers too:

Remember that half the capital's population come from overseas now.... pick up a tabloid, read it through their eyes, and see what the headlines mean to you.

Here are just a small selection from one edition of Wapping's biggest brother, the News of the World. 'EU are free to go' (Brussels apparently tells the UK's 'most evil killers'). 'Sharon's revenge poo much for Elton' (she defecated on his drive 30 years ago). 'Becking for help' (Posh's nanny has quit). 'A turtle bummer' (turtles can breathe through their posteriors). 'Park and hide' (something about council car parks). 'I'm so De-prest' (says singer Preston now his marriage has bust). And so it goes. A pun a page keeps bored sub-editors chortling.

Preston concludes: that tabloids' headline efforts are "a dated, dowdy exercise in mass incomprehension". Ouch.

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I def understand the conventional search wisdom re: search, and Peter Preston does have a point.

But it's strange while puns seem might seem in decline for these reasons at the same time they seem to work really well on social media voting sites.

It's a question of making sure the cultural reference in the pun is relevant to the audience I suspose.

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