The San Antonio Express-News has banned puns in headlines, after editor Robert Rivard reported reading nine of them in one edition.
Puns have long been known as a form of low-class, cheap humor, often mocked for their silliness and stretching of language. Some of them, though, are useful and have a place when used properly.
Rivard clearly was angered by what he read. "I am prepared to take disciplinary action against our most senior headline writers and editors if my order is not respected," Rivard wrote. "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." .
As Nicole Stockdale notes over at A Capital Idea,
Rivard also wrote, "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."
Whew. Harsh language for fellow newsroom professionals.
Aside from the tone of Rivard's memo, a ban seems shortsighted. Once placed, bans are hard to lift. What happens when a story cries out for headline humor? Who will risk Rivard's wrath to write something humorous and risk being publicly identified as immature by the boss? UPDATE: Apparently, Don Podesta at The Washington Post agrees that bans aren't wise.
A further quibble is that some of them aren't puns.
Here are a few of the heads cited in a column by Express-News public editor Bob Richter outlining the matter.
"Old well ends well: River Walk threat wiped out"
"Mumps outbreak swells"
"Border violence killing tourism"
"Bell's name doesn't have a familiar ring for many voters"
"(Pope) Benedict names a flock of new cardinals"
Over at the wonderfully named Irregardless, Webster's definition is this: ""the humorous use of a word, or of words which are formed or sounded alike but have different meanings, in such a way as to play on two or more of the possible applications; a play on words."
another definition of a pun: a word play suggesting, with humorous intent, the different meanings of one word or the use of two or more words similar in sound but different in meaning.
In other words, a pun has to "work both ways," not simply use the word "killing" in a story about violence and tourism.