Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Butler Didn't Do It

After last night's NCAA Tournament finale — in which Duke defeated Butler, 61–59 — the pastor of my church posted a brief comment on Facebook: "The murder mystery fan in me was really looking forward to saying, 'Butler did it.' "

In the literary world, I suppose there are few phrases that have become as cliched as "the butler did it" — even though, as I understand it, the writer who is most often credited with originating that phrase, Mary Roberts Rinehart, never actually used it in one of her books.

And, as someone who spent many years on sports copy desks, I'm sure that more than one copy editor in this great land of ours fantasized about writing a headline that said "Butler Did It" — or something equally clever — for this morning's newspaper.

It reminds me of an occasion when, as a sports copy editor for the now–defunct Arkansas Gazette, I was assigned to write the headline for the football game story in which the Arkansas Razorbacks — who had been praised in the preseason as a potential national champion — hosted the Miami Hurricanes in a game played in Little Rock. The 'Canes routed the Razorbacks that day, effectively ending all talk of a national title, even though it was only September.

As I sat in front of my computer screen, I happened to think of an old line, "It's an ill wind that blows nobody any good," and I used that as the basis for my headline, which was "An ill wind blows through Little Rock." I was — and still am — proud of that headline, the inspiration for which, I believe, originated hundreds of years ago. But I often wondered just how many people got the allusion. I'm sure there would be even fewer today.

Butler didn't do it, of course, and so copy editors were deprived of the storybook ending that many craved. Of course, with the abundance of David vs. Goliath comparisons, the game was practically drowning in allusion as it was.

Nevertheless, it is an opportunity to point out the risk that accompanies using allusions in headlines.

Don't get me wrong. Using allusions in headlines is one of the few ways that copy editors can flex their intellectual muscles, but my years on newspaper copy desks taught me that these things can backfire if you aren't certain that all of your readers will pick up on your reference.

One of my favorite bloggers, John McIntyre, a former editor for the Baltimore Sun, has written at his You Don't Say blog (and elsewhere) about an incident that occurred in the Baltimore area in 1996 that inspired such a headline that others didn't get.
"On July 4, 1996, when President Bill Clinton visited Maryland's Eastern Shore, a bald eagle named Freedom, which had been nursed back to health after an injury, was released into the sky to commemorate the occasion.

"Unfortunately, Freedom was attacked by a couple of ospreys and ended up back in the bird hospital. When The Baltimore Sun put the story on its front page, the task of writing a headline fell to Paul Clark, one of the ablest copy editors I have ever worked with. He came up with 'Freedom's just another bird/ with nothing left to lose.'

"That headline was applauded in the newsroom and praised in the in–house newsletter. But when I offer it up as an example of the craft to my copy editing students at Loyola College, I get a roomful of blank looks. Janis Joplin singing 'Me and Bobby McGhee' is presumably the kind of music that only older people listen to."

John McIntyre

Allusion, as Mr. McIntyre points out, "should enrich the reader's experience by providing an additional layer of meaning. But if it gets in the way of grasping the principal meaning, it is intrusive and counterproductive."

That doesn't just apply to headlines, though. When my brother and I were small, my mother was fond of making points with references to the radio programs from her childhood — i.e., "the Shadow knows" or Amos 'n' Andy or Jack Armstrong the All–American Boy — or observing, when we played games like Monopoly, that someone's stash of Monopoly cash gave the appearance that that person had been "taking a walk in Jack Benny's vault."

By the time my brother and I came along, radio was mostly music and sports, and we didn't have a frame of reference that enabled us to understand what Mom was talking about. We didn't know about the Shadow. We hadn't heard the jokes about Jack Benny's penny–pinching ways.

For most allusions to work, they must be fresh, and that requires a certain amount of judgment on the part of the writer or the speaker. Such judgment must be rendered on a case–by–case basis.

There was a time, for example, when "Where's the beef?" was a popular commercial catch–phrase that was frequently used as an allusion. In 2010, however, the reference is probably unfamiliar to nearly anyone under the age of 30.

In 1963, when Martin Luther King gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, he began by saying "Five score years ago ..." and most listeners immediately understood the allusion to Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address a century earlier.

When I was in junior high, my civics teacher required everyone in the class to memorize and recite the Gettysburg Address — consequently, my classmates and I would have understood King's allusion. But I don't know if teachers require their students to memorize that speech these days. Beyond a cursory study of the Gettysburg Address in their history books, most, if not all, modern young people might not get it.

Likewise, since the Watergate scandal, just about every scandal that has come along has been given the suffix "–gate." I guess most people still get that reference. Watergate remains the most notorious scandal in recent memory, having brought down a president. But I can remember, in the days when the Watergate scandal was just becoming known to the American public, that it was referred to as "another Teapot Dome," which was an allusion to a political scandal from half a century earlier. I wonder if anyone — other than history majors — would get that today.

Allusion, as Mr. McIntyre wrote, can enhance the reader's experience — but it won't work if the reader doesn't know what you're talking about.

Well, congratulations to Duke. I guess no allusion could enhance the experience of seeing last night's game — even if the ending wasn't as dramatic as the one in "Hoosiers."

Butler didn't do it, but the Bulldogs weren't losers. They did everything but win the game.

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