Style Conversational Week 1073: We’re back in the news

May 22

It's been only six months since we did the last Bank Shots/ Mess With Our Heads, etc., contest, but chances are good that there will be different headlines to play on over the next 10 days for Week 1073 than there were last November.

While we’ve done this contest many, many times, last year’s installment was the first in which I welcomed heads from any publication, not just The Post. While I believe strongly that all of you should subscribe to either the print or the digital Washington Post — even through its toughest years it’s always produced great journalism, and now things are ever more heartening in the newsroom — I didn’t want to limit this contest only to subscribers, or give them a huge advantage, now that there’s a limit of 20 stories a month that most non-subscribers can access online.

In the Conversational for Week 1047, I shared a bunch of winning headlines from our bank head contests over the years, and offered some kinda dry but maybe kinda useful analysis of what makes entries work best. So take a look at bit.ly/conv1047.

A few more clarifications: I say in the introduction that if a sentence ends with a period, it's not a headline. That’s not always true, exactly; a few featury-sounding heds sometimes consist of two or more short sentences. For example, Barry Ritholtz’s column in last Sunday’s Business section took the jump head “Think this time is different? Take your temperature. Then check the data.” But it’s obviously a headline because it stretches across the top of the article; it would be fine to use in this contest. What I want to exclude are the full-sentence summaries that run under many headlines on a home page.

The Ritholtz headline raises another judgment call: What is “a significant part” of a headline? I used to be a lot stricter, just letting you cut “officials say” or whatnot at the end. But now, as long as chopping the headline at the beginning or end (still I'm not letting you drop the middle) doesn’t result in a total change of meaning of the phrase, that should work. So for the above hed (sorry for lapsing into journo-jargon spelling) you could use “Think this time is different?” or that and the next sentence, or the last one, or the last two. But don’t use just “Think this time.” That’s changing the meaning too significantly.

Oh, one more thing, which I noted in 2012: “A warning: We’re not going to make jokes on headlines about very bad news, especially local news. If someone’s killed in a car crash and that person’s family might read this column, the Style Invitational is not going to use the headline as a chance to make some silly joke, even if it’s not related to the actual event in the story. Have a heart.”

Lord knows I have a high threshold for humor that’s risque, and even for humor that makes people say “yuck.” But I don’t ever want the Invite to cause people pain. (Except groaner-pun pain, and the pain resulting from coffee coming out of your nose.)

Making the short list: The results of Week 1069

When I put the Week 1069 contest together, I first used a different list of the 1,000 most common English words, or, as the “Up Goer Five” cartoon described it, “the ten hundred words people use most often.” I had used one from “The Reading Teacher’s Book of Lists” (2000), which is widely shared online. It was fine, even though it was British and words like “shall” were very high on the list. Days later, though, I learned about the “Up Goer Six” page in which you could feed your poem to see if every word was on the list — a truly invaluable tool. But it required a different list: the one drawn in 2006 from 26 million words used in U.S. TV and movie scripts. So: newer, American, conversational — all good.

What wasn’t so great was that TV and movie scripts of course note the characters’ names every time they open their mouths, which resulted in a whole lot of people’s names, even odd ones like Jax and Greenlee, making the list, to the exclusion of, say, “horse” or “yellow” or “tree.” Still, the quirk in the list didn’t deter the Bards of Loserdom.

In fact, master light-verse poet Hugh Thirlway (a regular in our limerick contests) took advantage of the names in this entry (not the one that got him ink, though):

We find on the list here Alexis and Grace,
Jack, Nora and Miguel each have a place;
Sheridan, Timmy, Theresa and Kay,
Dawson, Nick, Greenlee, and Lindsay, and Kay,
David, Shawn, Beth, Ryan, Antonio.
How’s the choice made? I for one do not know:
All that I’m trying in these lines to prove is
These are the names that get most use in movies.

All the “above-the-fold” winners this week have gotten vats of ink in earlier Invite poetry contests, and so have all the honorable-mention Losers, with the exception of Promising Newbies Todd DeLap, whose 10 inks all date from Week 1039 and later, and the even greener Kelly Ronayne (Week 1052).

A note to recidivist Losers: One fairly new Loser recently wrote to tell me he already had enough magnets, and that I could just e-mail him his prize letter. That’s fine with me, but I’m happy to send prizes repeatedly to even the winningest Losers, as long as they're not going to throw them away.

If you’d rather not get whatever prize you won (or any more at all), just let me know and I’ll make a note of it. A couple of people have declined further magnets but still would like to get the snail-mail letters with Genuine Empress Scrawl at the bottom. That’s fine with me; just let me know (e-mail me).

Other people have requested one or the other of the two magnets I’m sending out at any given time (I usually just pick the randomly). That’s fine as well, as long as you e-mail me your request by the Tuesday after the results are posted. Sorry, I’m not keeping track of what I sent you last time.

A couple of unprintable poems are at the bottom of this column.

Still scrambling on the Week 1072 ScrabbleGrams? This could help. (Mayyyybe.)

In Week 1072, I presented a list of 40 seven-letter sets for you to rearrange into new words and define, or old words and snarkily define. (Actually, they turned out to be 39 seven-letter sets and one six-letter set; a mistake, but you still have six workable letters.) As one Loser or another often does in certain Invitational contests, Elden Carnahan posted on the Losers’ website, nrars.org, links to all the five-, six- and seven-letter permutations of each letter set. There are a lot. (They’re at nrars.org/permutations1072.html .) Elden adds: “A word of warning to new Devotees: it is possible that the Empress will notice that this list exists, and she may think that, since I have saved you the drudgery of finding all the permutations, you now have time to turn in very superior work.”

Deadline is Monday night at midnight, wherever you are. Oops! I forgot! Because of the Memorial Day weekend, I extended the Week 1072 deadline to Tuesday at midnight wherever you are. Thanks to Michael Kilby and Jonathan Hardis for reminding me.

Can Losers win the Post Hunt?

There will be at least one team from the Greater Loser Community at the seventh annual Post Hunt on Sunday, June 1, at noon, and it’s not too late to join them. For the uninitiated, the Post Hunt is a huge, absolutely crazy event that requires you to solve a series of cryptic, and hopefully funny, brainteasers across several blocks of downtown Washington. The funny is pretty much guaranteed, since it’s the work of the trio of Gene Weingarten, Dave Barry and Tom Shroder, who inaugurated this event when they worked together in the 1980s on the Miami Herald’s Sunday magazine, Tropic (the Tropic Hunt continues to this day). Read this to see what it's like.

One twist this year, says Gene: At least one person in each team will have to have a smartphone, as well as a Twitter account. (A Twitter account is free and it's very easy to ignore if you never use it after this.)

If you’d like to meet up with fellow members of the Loser Community — and I have it on good authority that the Deposed Czar of The Style Invitational will grant the team a photo-op — quickly contact Pie Snelson at pie.snelson@facebook.com. (For one thing, Pie doesn’t have a smartphone.) There have been numerous Loser teams in the past, and they've sometimes gotten pretty close to solving all the puzzles quickly. You don’t have to wear a Loser T-Shirt, but it would be great if at least a couple of people did. Kids welcome.

A hot (or at least seasonable) time in Old Town: Loser Brunch June 22

I plan on making it to the next Loser Brunch, which is at Chadwicks in Old Town Alexandria, Va., on Sunday, June 22, at 11 a.m. Chadwicks is on the Strand, close to the waterfront at the end of Duke Street. And there’s talk about crossing the river afterward to take in the Nationals-Braves game, which starts at 1:35. RSVP to Brunch Central, Elden Carnahan, at elden [dot] carnahan [at] gmail [dot] com. This brunch was just organized; as of this writing it's not yet on Elden’s brunch information page. But it’s a go. As always, I’m especially excited to meet new people at the brunches; once again, a Loser Brunch is in no way a competitive quipfest. That’s that other thing I have a hand in.

Short words can be ‘bad’ words: The Unprintables of Week 1069

Like this one:

I read this list, and from its place,
It seems some people still say grace.
I’ll bet they’re not the same ones which
Are saying sh*t and f*k and b*tch. (Frank Osen)

Or this one:

The day of our wedding her promise to me
Is our sex life is gonna be crazy and free,
But later that night when I finally I get her
In bed, what I hear is: “The less head, the better.” (Chris Doyle)

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