An excellent way for the more advanced learner to increase his or her English proficiency is to read an English-language newspaper on a regular basis. Most people who read a newspaper do so selectively and skim through the pages looking for the most interesting-looking articles to read first. They usually make their choice on the basis of the headlines of the articles. And this is where the difficulty for the non-native speaker of English arises, since newspaper headlines are often extremely difficult to understand. There are two main reasons for this. The first reason is that newspaper headlines have to be brief and consequently use short words that are rarely used in everyday speech or indeed in the rest of the article itself. These short words have been called thinnernyms, and include probefor investigation, blast for explosion, and axe for abolish, etc.
And the second reason why newspaper headlines are difficult to understand is that headline writers, at least in British newspapers, look for every opportunity to include a pun in their headlines. It is this second aspect of newspaper headlines that I want to concentrate on in this article.
Popular British tabloids such as the Sun or the Mirror are notorious for the use of puns in their headlines, but even serious papers such as the Guardian cannot resist the temptation. What makes many of the headline puns even more difficult than the simple wordplay of puns used in jokes is that headline puns very often contain cultural references. Unless you are familiar with popular British TV programmes or advertising, the headline will be impossible to understand. All the examples which follow were taken from the Guardian over two weeks at the end of November last year. See if you can identify the pun or make any sense of the meaning of the headline.
- Burning questions on tunnel safety unanswered (About the possibility of fires in the Channel tunnel)
- Science friction (About an argument between scientists and the British government on the topic of BSE or mad cow disease)
- Between a Bok and a hard place (About the remote chances of the Welsh rugby team beating the South African team)
- Waugh cry as Aussies blast off (Waugh is an Australian cricket player)
- Return to gender (About a reoccurrence of sexual harassment in London post offices)
- A shot in the dark (About the murder of a Russian politician)
- Dutch take courage and prepare for the Euro (About the introduction of the Euro into the Netherlands)
- Silent blight (On the incidence of sore throats among teachers)
- No flies on this heart-stopper (A review of the play The Lord of the Flies)
- Why the Clyde offer is not so bonny (About a take-over offer by a Scottish engineering company)
- Resurgent Welsh dragon too fired up to lose its puff (About a game of rugby involving the Welsh team)
- On a whinge and a prayer (On the resignation of a minister of the British government)
- Officials say atoll do nicely (About the fraudulent sale of small Pacific islands)
Puns are plays on words, and they form the basis of most jokes. They can use a word that has two meanings as in the following When is an ambulance not an ambulance? – When it turns into a hospital! Hereturns into can mean changes into or turns a corner into. Or they can play on two different words with the same sound, as in What’s black and white and red (read) all over? – A newspaper. (Obviously this second kind of pun doesn’t work when written down.)
What wobbles when it flies? – A jelicopter! (i.e. jelly wobbles and a helicopter flies)
Why couldn’t the viper viper face? – Because the adder adder handkerchief.
(Why couldn’t the viper wipe her face? – Because the adder had her handkerchief. Both viper and adder are synonyms for the only poisonous snake found in England.)
Why are there no aspirin tablets in the jungle? – Because paracetamol! (i.e. because parrots eat them all; paracetamol is the brand name for a popular aspirin tablet in England.)
- Burning questions on tunnel safety unanswered
The pun in this case is in the words burning questions. The questions are about fires, hence burning questions, but burning question is another way of saying an important or urgent question.
- Science friction
Friction is a word used to describe tension or disagreement between people, in this case between scientists and the British government. The obvious reference here is to science fiction; stories that take place in the future or another part of the universe.
- Between a Bok and a hard place
The nickname of the South African team is the Springboks (or Boks). The pun here is on the expression Between a rock and a hard place, which means in a difficult situation, in a dilemma.
- Waugh cry as Aussies blast-off
This is a simple pun on the words Waugh/war, which are pronounced identically.
- Return to gender
The term gender has to do with male and female; and the newspaper article in question deals with the return of tension in the working relationships of men and women in London post offices. The headline is a pun on the instruction Return to sender, which is stamped on letters that cannot be delivered and must be sent back to the people who wrote them.)
- A shot in the dark
The Russian politician was killed by a gunman in a dark stairway; hence the headline. But a shot in the dark also means a gamble or a guess.
- Dutch take courage and prepare for the Euro
Dutch courage is the expression given to bravery that is attained by drinking lots of alcohol.
- Silent blight
A blight is an affliction or illness; in this case the sore throats of teachers, which cause them to be silent. The reference is to the Christmas carol called Silent Night.
- No flies on this showstopper
The flies of the headline refer to the name of the play under review The Lord of the Flies. The pun is in the reference to the expression There’s no flies on her, (or anyone other person), which means you cannot trick her; she is not easily fooled. The headline is presumably intended to mean: This show is very good.
- Why the Clyde offer is not so bonny
The pun here is in the combination of Clyde and bonny. This refers to a popular gangster film of about twenty years ago called Bonnie and Clyde. Bonny is a word used mostly in Scotland to mean attractive, so the literal meaning of the headline is that the take-over offer of the Clyde company is not attractive to shareholders of the other company.
- Resurgent Welsh dragon too fired up to lose its puff
Once more the pun is in the combination of two words, dragon and puff, and refers to a popular children’s song called Puff, the Magic Dragon. The dragon is the symbol for the Welsh rugby team, and to lose one’s puffmeans to get out of breath. The pun is extended by the use of the termfired up: dragons breathe out fire, and fired up means highly motivated. As to the literal meaning of the headline, I have to confess that I don’t know. It doesn’t make any sense to me!
- Officials say atoll do nicely
The word atoll means coral island and is being punned here with the phrase“that will do” thus producing the sentence: Officials say that will do nicely. The statement That will do nicely is taken from a British TV advertisement some years ago where a customer asks if he can pay by a certain credit card and the shop assistant replies. Yes, that will do nicely. (i.e. you are most welcome to pay with this credit card.) The corrupt officials of the headline were telling prospective island buyers that their money was most welcome.
- On a whinge and without a prayer
The pun is in the combination of whinge and prayer. This refers to the title of an American World War 11 song called Coming in on a wing and a prayer, about a pilot trying to try land a damaged plane. Wing has been changed here to whinge, which means to moan or complain. The term “without a prayer” means “without hope”.
The literal meaning of the headline is that the minister was complaining (about his treatment at the hands of the press) but had no hope of retaining his position as leader of the Welsh assembly.