We should have no illusions about our allusions

Copy editors often have to be the reader’s advocate. We ask questions and try to clear up muddled prose. And we are the ones who remind writers and other editors that not everyone will understand a pop culture or even a deep culture reference. I needed a reminder myself recently when I tried out my new grammar/usage/word game with a few colleagues.

One of my questions made what I thought was a clever and nearly universal reference to the Simon and Garfunkel song “Scarborough Fair.” It didn’t click with my colleagues, all but one of whom are years younger than I and at least one of whom grew up not only in another era but in another country. I loved that reference, but in the end, I had to kill my darling, grieve a little and move on.

Back when I wrote headlines for the newspaper feature section, I was fond of word play and cultural references, but I sometimes indulged in references that had no discernible connection to the story. And sometimes the allusions were just too obscure. I once had to write a headline for a story about very entertaining longtime talk show guests who were no longer being invited on current shows. (The story was from the Wall Street Journal and was published in 2002.) I wrote a headline that referred to a very funny and often replayed George Gobel appearance on the Tonight Show. (Go ahead and click – the part that counts is only about 25 seconds into the clip.) I thought the headline I wrote, “They’re just brown shoes,” suited the story, even though there was no mention of Gobel or his comment. My colleagues really tried to talk me out of that one. The headline made it into print (I just checked The News & Observer’s archive). I don’t know whether anyone got it.

I thought of that probably ill-advised headline today as I read The New York Times’ Arts & Leisure section’s discussion among the writers of six popular television series. The NYT piece and the headline referred to “post-water-cooler TV,” which calls back to the age when co-workers gathered at an office water cooler and talked about the previous night’s big TV events. One writer, Beau Willimon of House of Cards, made the case that today’s equivalent of a water cooler could be live-tweeting or binge-watching. Terrence Winter of Boardwalk Empire, noting that in earlier times, everyone saw the same shows, made this point:

“Now, because of the niche quality viewing, you’ve got, at least on cable shows, a much smaller amount of people who don’t have that. It’s going to be interesting to see 40 years from now if there’s going to be little groups of people who know references to certain shows; whereas before, everyone knew the same songs, the same jokes, the same routines.”

Copy editors and writers need to bear in mind that even though they themselves are drenched in the most popular or the hippest of pop culture, the readers they are trying to inform or entertain might not be and might be left befuddled by a reference to, say, the fade-to-black finale of The Sopranos or the “Blurred Lines” of Robin Thicke’s hit song.

On the other hand, some references work because they draw on well-known sources or because they can be understood without the cultural background. We had recent headlines in two of our publications aimed at accountants that alluded to phrases from Shakespeare’s The Tempest: brave new world and sea-change. “Brave new world” refers also to Aldous Huxley’s novel, and even if you didn’t know it came from Shakespeare, you might know it from Huxley and myriad references in pop culture. “Sea-change” is often misunderstood, but I think our headline used it as Shakespeare intended its meaning: a transformation that marks not just a shift in direction but a fundamental change. Both Shakespeare allusions worked even for someone who didn’t know where those phrases came from.

Even with this knowledge that not all of my own cultural references will resonate with people, I have yet to kill one of my other darlings from my word game. (I must be coy because I don’t want to give away the answer on the off chance that someone who will be participating in the game is reading this blog post.) The question’s hints contain both a Christian Bible reference and an allusion to a classic American short story. I just can’t bear to give that one up yet. We’ll see how it plays when I try out the game with other colleagues.