The Style Conversational
The Style Conversational
Loser-friendly discussion with The Empress of The Style Invitational

Week 920: A turn of phrases, and a special guest competitor

Good afternoon, everyone. It’ll be interesting — and surely a challenge — to see how well our Week 920 chiasmus contest will fare in the Google era: Has every play on words already been made?

Before the days of Google, the results of the Invitational’s chiasmus contest (1999) and the similar but more limited spoonerism contest (1995; I judged that one when the Czar was on vacation) were prefaced with discussions of how many “Steal Invitational” entries had been submitted. So while the opportunity for lifting someone else’s ideas is now broader, so by far is our ability to see what’s already out there. Note: You don’t have to throw out your idea just because you see a few Google hits with the same inverted phrase (such as “gifts bearing Greeks” in the example). But it shouldn’t be thousands and thousands, and your joke can’t have been made in a well-known venue (a TV show, for example, or a in a hit song). And using an existing chiasmus is also more acceptable if your setup line is very original and, of course, funny.

This contest is, to be sure, a wide-open one by Invitational standards, especially given that many jokes in other Invite contests are chiasmi as well. For example, Chris Doyle’s many inking limericks over the years have featured chiasmi in their last line, such as this one — still timely, alas — from 2007:
The Donald’s a whiz with a reel:
And a shark when he’s closing the deal.
His slippery morays
And conger-line forays
Appear in “The Dart of the Eel.”

So: How well will this Gene Weingarten guy do? We’re both eager to find out. Gene has been my close friend and colleague for more than 20 years; he and I talk at length (in written form) and with what could charitably called gusto almost every day. For the uninitiated: Gene, the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning feature writer for The Post and the weekly humor columnist for The Washington Post Magazine, was the editor of the Sunday Style section for more than a decade beginning in the early 1990s. It was during his tenure, in 1993, that the anonymous Czar of The Style Invitational launched our dear little contest, continuing to run it (with a slight interruption) until he was deposed by the Empress at the end of 2003.

Gene and the Czar have always been very close, even sharing a toothbrush as well as a continued passion for The Style Invitational, not to mention an imperious, smug view on which humor is funnier, indeed better, than other humor. And so I think we can get a little insight from the little experiment conducted 11 years ago, when the Czar went on leave and the Empress, in the role of Auxiliary Czar, judged the Invite for a number of weeks. This is from a May 2001 column, back when there was space to discuss such matters (but no Style Conversational, which has essentially taken its place):

“Today marks the return of The Czar from a two-month sabbatical. During this time, as promised, he submitted entries under a series of pseudonyms unknown to the new judge, who was a woman. The very first week, the Czar suggested that what was missing from a photo of a bent-over Betty Ford was “the monkey on her back,” an entry summarily rejected as “tasteless.” It was at that moment The Czar sensed he was in trouble. What followed was a weekly carnival of horror for the Czar, culminating with Week LXIV, when he proposed that the “I” in the “IBM” sign be blacked out to create “a company that produces software to facilitate data dumps.” This entry was flushed instantly. In all, the Czar submitted an average of five entries a week over nine weeks. He did enjoy some success: In two weeks (LX and LXI), he took the first prize, coming up with the winning poem summarizing a newspaper article and the winning blurb designed to make a movie as unappealing as possible. He also garnered three honorable mentions. (All prizes were sent to the University of Pennsylvania undergraduates who graciously permitted their names to be used in this foul enterprise.)

“Overall, the brief but eventful tenure of the Auxiliary Czar did much to humanize a contest often thought of as arrogant and autocratic. She sent cheerful notes to people whose entries did not quite make the final cut, praising their efforts and urging them to try again. She engaged in pleasant, respectful e-mail banter with any and all. At times she explained her decisions, so as to demystify the selection process. The Czar wishes to thank her for creating a nurturing and inviting atmosphere with these many changes, which will cease at once.“

For the record, here are the winning entries to the two successive contests:

Week LX, poems based on stories in the paper (results published April 15, 2001):
And the winner of the electric nose cleaner:
‘Women Are Still Scarce in Top Media, Telecom Jobs’
You’ll do fine if you’re perky and have a nice rear
With Meg Ryan-ish hair you can toss.
They’ll love you in front of the camera, dear.
Just don’t ever try to be boss. (“Lindsay and Geoff Shafer, Stahlstown, Pa.”)

Week LXI, a blurb recommending a book or movie that would actually discourage people from reading or seeing it (results published April 22, 2001).
And the winner of the happy-face throw rug:
This movie is for everyone who knows in his heart that it’s time to forgive the Nazis. (Christina Mach, Kirkland, Wash.)

I do find it interesting that the Aux Czar rejected the “monkey on her back” entry. I don’t think the Empress would have done that now.


The Loser community continued to have fun with our perennial bank-headline contest — once you start reading newspaper headlines with an eye toward misinterpreting them in a juvenile manner, it’s hard to stop, as several Losers found out when this headline appeared just yesterday in the Metro section: “For Johnson, no ‘wiggle room.’

And we have another funny set of results, with 24 entries running in the paper and 17 more just on the website. Even though we let people choose headlines from 10 days’ worth of papers, in some cases we got a number of entries, some similar, for the same headline, in which case I chose my favorite wording. Among the four top winners, only the Holder one fell into this category, but it was also true for lots of the honorable mentions, notably “Highway of Death,” the Pepco snake and “Obama sends drones to Libya.” On a few of the headlines I give ink to two contrasting approaches. Not surprisingly, there weren’t any First Offenders getting ink this week; brand-new Losers aren’t as likely to do an Invitational requiring you to go look up newspaper stories, and they’re also just not as apt to know what we’re looking for in a contest like this.

It’s the third Inker and fifth “above-the-fold” ink out of a total of just 41 inks (with this week’s two) for John Shea, who’s the editor of the University of Pennsylvania hospital’s magazine. John sent many, many headlines for this contest, several of which made my short list.
Trevor Kerr gets Ink No. 15 and his second runner-up prize since he began ‘Viting in Week 863. Once again, Beverley Sharp ends up at the top of the page, so whatever it was last week plus two. (I’m happy that I judged this contest entirely blindly, because otherwise I’d wonder if I weren’t rewarding Beverley for just being so dang likable.) And Dave Prevar — who I believe is working on arrangements for September’s Flushies awards — grabs his 194th ink, and 14th above the fold, in his seven years of serious Inviting.

I was also delighted to see a number of clever entries from Elden Carnahan (one of them killed from the Invite; see below), the founder of the Loser community, the keeper of the stats, and the Loser brunch coordinator (also see below). Elden is so close to reaching the Hall of Fame number of 500 inks, and I’m glad he’s finally rearranged his priorities so that he can ignore family, job, church, etc., and devote the time necessary to reach the ink goal.

This week’s Haw from Sunday Style Editor Lynn Medford goes to Roy Ashley’s dig at the Redskins. Jeez, what would the Invite do if Washington started to have competent sports teams?


The Empress continues to make matters difficult for the Post’s “multiplatform desk” (formerly copy desk), which is charged with, among myriad other duties, keeping bad taste out of The Washington Post. And so this entry by Elden (which, to be fair, I’d designated only for the website) got the virtual blue pencil of the Delete key:
Tibetan leader seeks release of 400 monks
Chaste semen touted as miracle potency drug

Also cut initially was Stephen Litterst’s entry (also just for the Web) about Dan Snyder, until I agreed to change the wording. My open question on Facebook asking for suggestions for a more printable yet understandable replacement for the term “douchebag” resulted in a lively discussion that ran to 58 comments, concluding with “‎@Pat - Admit it. You have the best job in the whole wide world.” (If you haven’t become my Facebook friend, don’t you think you should?)
But then there are ones I didn’t even try: Also from Elden, this one was just too close to Liz Taylor’s death:
Warner back at the table
Liz gone, former senator now able to get seconds
[Sen. Mark Warner is on a federal budget commission]

Then we have this one that — even if it had been based on the correct pronunciation — wouldn’t have been able to run, but is funny anyway:

Is Boehner softening on Ryan plan?
‘This has never happened to me before, speaker says limply’ (John Bunyan, less moralistic than his namesake)

But the real Scarlet Letter — and truly appropriate for that moniker — goes to this one by Jeff Contompasis:
Ready for the red carpet
Tweens prepared for menarche


Elden’s told me about RSVPs from a small but interesting group of Losers for Sunday morning’s brunch buffet at the Front Page, near the Ballston Metro station in Arlington. There’s still room for more, but you should let Elden know. See for info and the link to Elden’s e-mail. See you there!

On a final note, I’ve just learned that the Invite’s shepherd on, the terrific Michael McPhate, will soon be leaving for, er, some paper in New York. In the short time I’ve worked with him, Mike has been enormously helpful and patient in teaching me how to post the Invite on the Web, and in bailing me out when things go wrong. I’m so sorry to see him go but wish him the very best, as well as congratulating him on the impending arrival of a little McPhate.

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