British Studies Web Pages



Reading between the (Head)lines

An article by Richard Bolt to introduce you to the love of wordplay in Britain through the mysteries and delights of newspaper headlines. This subject illustrates very effectively the links between culture and language, with the Polish illustrations demonstrating that not only does wordplay exist, but is as troublesome in all languages. As with much in language teaching, it as at the point it becomes troublesome that cultural insights well worth looking into are revealed. The intention therefore is to encourage you not to put such wordplay to one side, but to provoke you into questioning and investigating how it works, both for the pleasure of solving ‘the puzzle’ and to get ‘inside the skin’, as it were, of the native reader. Wordplay is intended to be enjoyed - so enjoy the article!

Blithe Spirits, After Hours, By Invitation Only, Pearly Queen abdicates, Fallen Idol - five headings in a row from a Times Saturday supplement appropriately entitled Play. The themes (not in order) are: gossip column, private detective TV series, guest column, film review, a pop culture guide offer (click on Headline Origins to find the matches and suggestions as to the origins). Not easy and you really need to both read and see the piece to be sure (unfortunately copyright laws mean we cannot reproduce the whole page needed for the effect). Immediate recognition by a native can be matched by a baffling opacity to a non-native. Think of some Polish examples e.g. K³opoty Maryjana or Blues Kasy Chorych. Would anyone not from Poland know these even if they were Polish speakers? If you would like to find out more about grammatical and lexical wordplay elements - see the item on Grammar and lexical devices by Anna Tomczak.


There is an obsession in Britain with wordplay. It is used a great deal in conversation, there are radio shows devoted to it, it is found in the names of products and advertising, many newspaper and magazine columnists write little else - their columns a post modern patchwork quilt - while local radio DJs are high speed specialists with much understandable only locally. Two famous exponents (‘punsters’) from the 18th C were Samuel Johnson and Charles Lamb. Book titles (e.g. Of Mice and Men), café names (e.g. Al Capuccino’s), shops (e.g. Athlete’s Foot), bands (e.g. the Rolling Stones) - wordplay is everywhere (see Headline Origins). The wit is readily appreciated and possible offence usually forgiven or got away with. But if you want a particularly good (and easily accessible) source, headings in newspapers and especially magazines, are often full of them. Many people admire the verbal invention, especially treasured are those that produce a groan for their awfulness, while others find them irritating and distracting - dressed down headings dressing up weak articles. At times they can be very complex, referring to picture as well as text, and working in two or three ways simultaneously. Click on Kinds of Wordplay to find examples including several types of pun.


Inadvertent wordplay and its potential embarrassment is a fear learners of English often have when talking with native speakers. The connotative jungle. And not only in Britain of course, UK natives in our attempts to use Polish often find that when we try to say something that seems completely literal everyone laughs, and then starts mumbling something about being difficult to explain (and how good your Polish is), before averting eyes and sharing another chuckle.


Where to find wordplay

In some magazines or newspapers 80% may be a conservative wordplay estimate, in others it is difficult to find any - presumably depending on editorial policy. The broadsheets (e.g. The Times and The Guardian away from their serious news items) seem particularly rich at present, while tabloids prefer for instance the provocative out-of-context personal quotation e.g. My head was inside the lion’s mouth or colloquial structures like B-r-r-anson does a Reggie Perrin (see Multiple Wordplay in Kinds of Wordplay for an explanation). Although tabloids have a reputation for their headlines - apart from the provocative front page variety (e.g. Chirac est un ver) - there is often much less wordplay. The same is true of taboo words with The Sun having the lowest frequency of any UK national paper - in fact none! Reputation and reality do not always meet.


Who writes them? It is NOT the journalist who has written the article, and they often despair at what they feel is the trivialising of their work, but the sub-editors who work as a team to fit each edition together, chopping a little here, adding a little there, deciding which pictures to use, their captions (another enormous source of wordplay) etc. Simple descriptive headings have become less frequent than before but wordplay itself changes over time too - classical and literary references being increasingly replaced with those from popular culture. Not only is it the reader’s education that has changed but very probably the sub-editor’s too. Smart casual language to match the times.


Often it is necessary to have lived in a society to understand the wordplay as it is often based on common shared knowledge and culture. Within a society most have to be understandable too - we all like our wit to be appreciated, and though no one will ‘get’ all of them most are based on popular general knowledge. Any glance at an American newspaper intended for an American audience reveals a number of examples quite meaningless to someone from the UK. Films for instance made in Britain and hoping for a wide American distribution have to ‘mind their language’ (even though in the US this expression is not used!).


How to use in class

Definitely to be used for informal quizzes - wordplay is for pleasure. Get real examples into the classroom with their accompanying article and photographs so learners can see the whole effect and get a strong sense of reality. Interest will be raised even if the puzzle is not solved. Choice will depend on educational level and age as much as language level. Do not be too demanding and have plenty of hints lined up for when a sea of blank faces stares back at you - a quiz where most of the people get most of the answers wrong is not a lot of fun.


The examples commented on in Kinds of Wordplay can be used for a start while the Others given there were all chosen as being easily discoverable with reference books. Some aspects are straightforward for instance spotting poetic devices, and common clichés are not too difficult either.


o        A simple matching exercise is one possibility - perhaps extended by first having to assemble headline, article and photograph (to ensure a gist reading) and then match with the wordplay explanation.

o        Another is a searching exercise using one or more of the reference books listed below - with perhaps a few oblique hints. Although an informal activity it can provide good advanced dictionary practice too


The coursebook game of requiring students to produce full and grammatically correct sentences could be added alongside - see British Studies Materials for Polish Teachers of English (reference below) for these and other activities. You will find the book in the British Studies Resource Points.


The struggle to get to the bottom of quotations and wordplay is the pleasure of exploration, the pleasure of the puzzle. Tough at times but very rewarding when successful. When you think you have found the ‘bottom’ you may well find there is still something more ‘behind’ or ’below’. Unlike crosswords for example, there are often no ‘right’ answers. It is rather the pleasure of the journey and it is a journey through language(s) and culture(s) together. The learning is in the hunt rather than in the finding, and thus mimicking intercultural approaches in language teaching with their search for as complete as possible cultural communication.



Looking for the wordplay in headings is a good way of showing that language is more than lexis and syntax, and can only live in its social and cultural environments. There is much more than meets the eye so, whenever you read a British newspaper remember there may often be more meaning lurking ‘between the lines’ than you realise. It may even explain the strange smile on the face of your British friend as you are both reading the same article!


Some useful articles and books

Ø       Language Rules OK by Ma³gorzata Zdybiewska from our Multilingual World issue complements this article, gives an extended discussion of language play focusing on clichés and concludes with a series of cliché quizzes.

Ø       British Studies Materials for Polish Teachers of English British Council 2000

The Newspapers unit by Anna Tomczak has a wide range of useful activities linking language with culture, notably on the stylistic features of articles and headlines, and furnishes many examples of headline wordplay. The book can be found in the British Studies Resource Points

Ø       The British Phrasebook Lonely Planet Publications 1999

An entertaining guide with entries on wordplay, on the specific language of food, shopping, sports, music, education and so on, examples from the main regional dialects (including rhyming slang), differences between British and American English, a little language history, a basic grammar of Welsh and Scots Gaelic (but not Irish), and a popular and academic further reading list.


Finding the meaning of quotations, references and allusions

Ø       Crowther J (ed) 1999 Oxford Guide to British and American Culture OUP

Ø       Seidl J & McMordie W 1998 (5th ed) English Idioms OUP - a very reliable introductory compilation avoiding the obscure or simply colourful - most UK natives recognise, even use, almost 100% of these

Ø       Oxford Idioms - a dictionary for learners of English 2001 OUP - a larger work and combining idioms from the UK and the US. Very good

Ø       Knowles E 199 A Concise Oxford Dictionary of Quotations OUP


Wordplay terminology + see Kinds of Wordplay

Ø       Baldick C 1990 The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms OUP

Ø       Cuddon J 1998 (4th ed) The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory Penguin

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