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Inside the dark art of (actually decent) sports headline puns

An enduring British pastime - but why?

Inside the dark art of (actually decent) sports headline puns
26 April 2017

Back page headline puns are a British media institution. Whether it's talking about the next club Wayne Rooney will sign for, the last club Wayne Rooney scored against or the nightclub Wayne Rooney was caught partying the night before he played terribly for the national team, the British media will always find a way of making light of the situation via bellowing capital lettered world play.

I PREDICT A DIET, shouted one, when darts player Andy Fordham said losing weight would help his comeback. TEARS ON MY PILAU screamed another, after India's cricketers suffered a heavy test match defeat. Of course who could forget the timeless SUPER CALLEY GO BALLISTIC CELTIC ARE ATROCIOUS, when Caledonian Thistle beat Celtic in the Scottish Cup.

It's a weirdly British sense of humour that runs throughout all of these headlines. They are silly and childish but at the same time quite endearing and funny in a polite, mostly harmless way, which I guess is what makes them so quintessential. 

They are the mainstay of a brash way of news-telling that is more often found in tabloids, but are every now and again found in a broadsheet or two as well, such is their pervasive popularity with the British public. But what are the factors that make a great headline?

"Telling the story and making the reader smile are the major ingredients," explains The Mirror sports editor Alan McKinlay. "If you can add topicality, then you have the perfect combination. There's also an old theory that if you can sing it, then it's a great headline."

“For example, BLESS THIS SCOUSE was a headline we used for Steven Gerrard retiring. It was nice because it showed you could use a pun for an effect other than humour. The headline works in a setting which is making a serious point about a great player’s career, whilst still being amusing.” 

So what is an example of a bad pun headline? Surely they can’t all be good?

“I am not a fan of any ‘Roo’ headlines, which I think are usually forced, awkward, and not funny,” explains Alan. “For example things like ROO GOTTA BELIEVE US, and THANK ROO FOR SAVING US. It rhymes with, but doesn't even sound like, ‘You’. ‘Roo’ has been used so many times instead of the word ‘You’ that it should be banned! Of course, now that our Wayne is nearing the end of his career, those headlines will thankfully die out.”

(Photo courtesy of Alan McKinley / Mirror Group)

For me, one of the funniest ideas is that you would get a load of journalists sitting round a table every morning over a cup of coffee, coming up with huge goofy puns to splash next to pictures of our prime minister or Jose Mourinho. That’s someone’s job. And I've always wondered what the pun writing process was, because it seems too important to leave up to just one person – one man’s endearingly labored word-play is another’s nightmare.

"The headlines are written by the production team, usually a sub-editor," explains Daily Mail deputy sport editor Ben Winstanley. "The writer does tend to not get involved in writing the headline unless there was the chance it could be contentious, in which case we would run it past them – although you'd get that for a more serious story than one with a pun in the headline."

"There is a healthy competition in the office to see who can come up with with the best one," adds Alan. "Occasionally a suggestion will be made and will be greeted with the shout 'Caption!’ meaning it's not good enough for a headline but might make a caption header."

But office banter aside, why do British papers love a good headline pun? What is it about the UK media, and the general public that consumes it, that demands comic word play from its news?

Ben explains: “people will always love a good pun,” as they are “fun to write and they are hopefully fun to read”. 

Alan agrees, adding, "The English language is packed with idioms, and as a nation we love word games, so it is only natural that puns are a big part of our newspapers. Although, about fifteen years ago we went through a stage where puns were banned on Mirror Sport. The pages looked a lot less fun and rather po-faced, it didn't work at all."

The thing is about headline puns is that they are a very print-based tradition. It's rare, if ever, that you see a headline pun for online content used in the same way that you get with the back pages of newspapers. I wondered what the difference was between the two that only allowed for puns to be used in print rather that online, and why I haven't seen any headline puns on my Twitter or Facebook feed yet. Ben explains:

"Online, there is more space to write a descriptive headline so there is an emphasis on giving details of the story to draw in the reader. In print we tend to be restricted to smaller headline space so we need to have fewer words to keep the reader interested."

"Online headlines have to include a number of buzzwords to attract hits, so the headlines tend to be straight and actually, rather dull,” adds Alan. "In newspapers, as well as telling the reader what the story is, there is an element of entertainment and fun in the headlines."

Finally, do the guys have their favourite ever back page headline puns? Surely two people who work on puns every day must have seen some absolute gems?

"During the Rugby World Cup a player proposed to his partner on the pitch – our sub-editor wrote CROUCH, TOUCH, PAUSE...ENGAGED! - we all enjoyed that."

"Most are forgotten quickly," says Alan. "Once a headline is written you should enjoy the five seconds of satisfaction and maybe the occasional laugh, but then, almost immediately, you're on to the next one. Maybe that’s perhaps for the best: sports puns shouldn't take themselves too seriously. But saying that, I loved the late night winter Olympics headline when Britain's women won gold at curling, provoking the headline DAZZLE BRUSH."

A British newspaper, one of the country’s most noted institutions, bringing forward the image of an aggressive puppet fox to celebrate a national team win in a sport about wiping some brooms on ice. I don't think you're ever likely to read a better crystalisation of the sports headline pun than “Dazzle Brush” – ever.

I think that's the beauty of the best sports headline puns: not taking themselves too seriously or ever taking the piss too much. Like James Bond electrocuting a baddie in a bath and lulling “Shocking… Positively shocking”, the headline pun is the perfect way to draw a reader into a story using a bit of silly British charm.

And long may they continue.