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Style Conversational Week 1485: Make a difference. (Or else.)

The Empress of The Style Invitational on this week’s neologism contest and bank head winners

Sen. Ted Cruz's reputation for sucking up to Donald Trump -- along with his general unlikability -- inspired numerous Losers in The Style Invitational's Mess With Our Heads contest. (Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters)
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Here are three entries submitted to The Style Invitational’s Mess With Our Heads contest, whose results run today.

I. Washington Post online headline, March 28: Cruz’s battle to keep Trump in power has cost him friends, sparks questions

Submitted bank headline: First question- Cruz has friends?

II. Cruz’s battle to keep Trump in power has cost him friends, sparks questions

First question: Cruz has friends?

III. Cruz’s battle to keep Trump in power has cost him friends, sparks questions

The first of which is: He has friends?

Hahaha, made me laugh, Dan Helming! And Chris Doyle! And Drew Bennett!

In any Invite contest — and I’ve now judged more than 900 of them since 2003 — I’ll find similar entries; I got about 1,450 bank heads, many of them playing on the same headlines in The Washington Post in print and online over an 11-day period. And so it’s not surprising that two or more people would tell roughly the same joke on a single headline. But three jokes with virtually the same wording — “first question” — that doesn’t tend to happen. At first, I thought someone had sent in the entry over and over; this occasionally happens when the entrant doesn’t get an auto-reply (or, more often, doesn’t see it). But then I noticed the little bitty differences.

If I had run this entry in the results, I would have, of course, credited all three guys. But it just missed the cut in a week in which my “shortlist” ran to some 150 entries and I cut more than two-thirds of it (and even so, arguably ran too many headlines). I judge the contest without seeing the writers’ names, but in this case I knew that I’d have had to credit three people and their hometowns; that did lower its chances for ink. (Had four people sent this joke, I wouldn’t even have considered using it.)

There’s nothing I would recommend to Dan, Chris and Drew here so they’d have had a better chance with this headline; it’s done just right — they just had bad luck. But there are some takeaways:

Do not send your list of entries more than once — especially with short-form jokes such as the foal names of Week 1483, but even in this week’s contest (Week 1485) to switch two letters in a word, name, phrase, or title of a work and describe the result. Even when the entry includes writing a short description, there’s a chance that I’ll think it’s from two people; if I see too many, I’ll throw it out. So if you don’t get your auto-reply within an hour or so, please go ahead and write me at — put something in the subject line to catch my eye (“I didn’t get the auto-reply for Week 1481”) and I promise that I’ll check on it. It’s rare, but occasionally an entry gets lost in the ether.

Don’t send several entries that are slight variations on the same idea. This will really confuse me, for obvious reasons, if the entries are sorted and I don’t see them all on the same submission. As regular Losers know, if I can think of a way to make someone’s entry clearer or funnier, I will anyway.

A new, promising Loser who’s clearly caught the Invite bug asked in the Style Invitational Devotees Facebook group if she should stick to one idea or send several slightly different alternatives. Some of her fellow Devotees advised her to go with just the one, “so as not to use up precious entry slots” toward the maximum 25 entries. But the real reason is that I’ll think your idea seems to be a very common one!

Do send different entries if they have significantly different jokes. But if it’s just a couple of words, don’t write the entry all over again. Tell you what: If you have an alternative phrasing and you can’t make up your mind which is better (for instance, you don’t know if a certain phrase is too risque), then you can include an alternative in that same entry and I’ll make the call. And to be fair to your fellow Losers, just count that entry as two entries toward the 25-entry maximum. For most people, the “full dance card” isn’t an issue anyway.

This week’s contest — to transpose two letters in a word or phrase — has often been an option in our change-a-letter neologism contests over the years. But in a few scans through some randomly chosen results, I didn’t see any in which the change to a word was to switch two letters, rather than to add a letter, drop one, or substitute another one. There have to be some — we’ve run literally thousands of neologisms over the years — but my hunch is that the transpositions would be of adjacent letters, as with “Betty Garble,” one of today’s examples. That’s because in a regular neologism contest, the reader needs to recognize the original word or name you’re playing on; in almost all cases, it’d be too heavy-handed to announce the original.

But this week we might end up doing just that: It’s cool that switching two letters turns LEMONADE into DEMON ALE, as Jeff Rackow noted in his recent contest suggestion, but a reader isn’t going to see DEMON ALE and think LEMONADE. So I think we’ll be pointing it out. (By the way, Jeff, as a successful local contest-suggester, you’ve earned an ice cream date with the Empress.) For more obvious alterations, maybe I’ll leave off the explainer. In any case, I’d like you to tell me the original word/name. Here’s what I say on this week’s entry form (which, btw, is named, without the usual hyphen after “invite,” because of a little Empress-caused blunder):

HOW TO FORMAT YOUR ENTRIES: I’m not sure how I’ll ultimately run the results, but to help me out with the judging, please send your entries beginning with the original word, name, etc., followed on the same line with your new word and then the definition/description, like this one from the column:

BETTY GRABLE to BETTY GARBLE: Famed pinup model with great legs, not so great a voice.

You won’t be able to highlight the two letters that you’re switching -- the entry form doesn’t transmit boldface, italics, underlines, etc. That’s okay; I’ll figure it out. Still, this format, with each entry on one line (i.e., don’t push Enter until you’re finished that whole entry and perhaps start another one), will minimize the time I need to puzzle it out, and I’ll be able to group all the entries playing on “Washington” or “Social Security” or “zebra” or whatever.


Do check to make sure that the two letters switch positions exactly. I wrote an earlier example that didn’t; fortunately Ace Copy Editor Doug Norwood noticed. I’ll check the entries before they run, but I’m not going to be able to fix them!

Heads will LOL*: The results of Week 1481

*Headline by Chris Doyle for the Week 1191 contest, 2016

I do love the bank head contest, which appeared once in the Invitational under the Czar in 2001, then became a perennial with the Empress starting in 2004. (Here’s the “Headline” category of contests on Elden Carnahan’s Master Contest List.) As I mentioned above, we had a deluge of 1,450 entries this time, a large fraction of them using Washington Post headlines, and a large fraction of those were print headlines, though entrants were free to use any print or online source dated within the 11-day entry period.

A whopping 46 entries got ink this week, and all but the last four (risque; inside baseball) fit on the print page. Some of them were my favorites among similar ideas; you wouldn’t believe how many people thought about Ted Cruz showing up in Trump’s colonoscopy!

The Academy Awards took place during the entry period, allowing for an Instant Classic winner by Bill Dorner:

Surveillance Video Captures Man Throwing Rock Through Two Windows

Slapped comedian just keeps getting assaulted

Bill took advantage of my option to use “upstyle” capitalization, as in a book title, so that “Rock” could be read in two ways, earning himself his first Clowning Achievement trophy (but his third Invite win). Interestingly, the headline Bill used wasn’t from his hometown Indianapolis Star but from Hawaii News Now; he also included entries from and Fox 5 in Las Vegas, among other websites; I’m guessing that Bill was hunting for specific words he could play on. (That resourcefulness is fine with me!)

Our three runners-up all have illustrious Loser histories: Sam Mertens — who wins the Boogieing Hillary doll — was Loser of the Year in his rookie season just a couple of years ago, while Milo Sauer was Rookie of the Year in 2003 and Barbara Turner debuted that same year. All three runner-up entries were headlines and/or jokes that other entrants also sent, but these versions made me laugh harder. Sam scored the pith award, too: Catholic University names president: ‘Biden,' duh

Barbara won out over various Dahmer-type entries for ‘My goal, ultimately, is to get eyeballs’: Our exclusive interview with Mr. Potato Head; and Milo bested various gibes at the Postal Service with At age 101, he finally got his high school diploma: Plans gap year; parents skeptical

What Doug Dug: Ace Copy Editor Doug Norwood — like me, a longtime headline writer (and unlike me, might have written some of the heads we played on this week) — got a big kick out of the top four entries, and also singled out Roxi Slemp’s Racks can make things easier, until it’s time to clean: When I’m scrubbin’ that floor, woo-ee, I tip right over!’ Dolly Parton says as well as First Offender Terry Lewis’s Birth of a Final Four: ‘No more kids!’ vows mother of quadruplets, my choice among a bevy of similar entries.

I’m thrilled to have FOUR First Offenders this week: In addition to Terry, we have Paul Frantz of San Francisco, longtime Style Invitational Devotee and brunch-goer Stephanie Smilay, and someone who may well be familiar to longtime Post readers: Ken Bredemeier was a Washington Post reporter and columnist for several decades until the early 2000s; in the early days of The Post’s online chats, Ken discussed workplace issues in his “On the Job” forum. now he’s with Voice of America. I started at The Post in 1982 but Ken and I never crossed paths, as far as I know (it’s a big place); I’m delighted to see a fellow Postie here.

Saturday afternoon, May 21, outside: The Flushies

Watch here and in the newsletter (and if you’re in the In Crowd, a personal email) for an Evite for the Loser Community’s annual awards picnic potluck songfest etc etc etc, once again on the big back patio of Loser Steve Leifer’s house in Potomac, Md. A parody paean to the new Loser of the Year is being composed as we speak.

And keep working on those double-entendres! Deadline Monday, April 25, for Week 1484.