The Leisure of the Theory Class

When I was a magazine editor, I yearned (in vain, I might add) for someone to submit an article complaining about people’s misconceptions concerning Japanese drama. Why? So that I could give it the headline “What Part of Noh Don’t You Understand?”

Yes, I have a fatal weakness for puns—not the aptly-named nod-nod-wink-wink groaners (“I think I can Handel that,” said the musician about “Water Music”) but the clever unexpected variations on familiar expressions, which, for some reason, tickle my fancy. One of my greatest experiences as a writer was interviewing and writing about the late comic novelist Peter De Vries. When I arrived at his house in Westport, Conn., he ushered me into his study, which was a big mess, saying, “You can have the pick of the litter.” I knew he was a man after my own heart.

This sort of play on words is above all the province of headlines and the anonymous copy editors who craft them. You generally find the best in tabloids like The New York Post, which, to a story about a popular brand of chocolate chips losing its “kosher pareve” designation, affixed the headline “Chips Ahoy Vey!” Last March the Post covered a JetBlue pilot who jumped out of the cockpit midflight and ran down the aisles screaming about terrorists and 9/11 before being restrained by passengers. The headline: “This Is Your Captain Freaking.” I’m sorry, that’s poetry.

Even the respectable New York Times gets into the act with featurey stories, as in Monday’s piece on Republicans’ concern about the presence in the presidential race of libertarian Gary Johnson. The headline was short but sweet: “Spoiler Alert!”

My favorite headline of all time was on an Atlantic City Magazine article in the 1980s comparing the merits of singers Tom Jones and Engelbert Humberdinck, both of whom favored close-fitting trousers and were favorites of the ladies. The title was “The Battle of the Bulge.”

I’m not an editor anymore, so I exercise my penchant for wordplay when titling Lingua Franca posts and when playing tennis, which my frequent partner Rick Valelly, a political science professor, calls “the leisure of the theory class.” One thing about tennis is that you run into similar situations an awful lot, and for these Rick, I, and our colleagues have constructed a veritable appellation trail. For example:

Barbara Walters—Attributed to a player who digs out a lot of hard balls, in tribute to television’s master of the “get.” Also known as the Stan (as in Stan Getz).


Kon Tiki—A slice that floats out of bounds.

James Madison—Ball hit off the frame, hence a “framer” (Madison being one of the framers of the Constitution). Sometimes referred to as a John Jay.

Soup Nazi—A ball that hits the “back of the line.” (Yes, I know that the Soup Nazi on Seinfeld said, “No soup for you!” not “Back of the line!” I plead poetic license.) Credit to Linda Kaufman.

Last Night’s Lasagna—A ball that comes up on you.

Hormel—As in bacon, a really crisp volley.

Air Apparent—When you leap for a shot, and you end up jumping high enough so that there is actually space between your sneaker and the ground. In my demographic, not very common.

Poachmaster General—The Postmaster General is in charge of the U.S. Postal Service (and, until, 1971, was a cabinet-level position.) Comedian George Jessel was known as the “Toastmaster General.” When you make some good poaches at the net, you earn the title Poachmaster Gen.

Indiana Jones—This one is complicated. A famous scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” depicts the hero being confronted by a bad guy who does some fancy maneuvers with a sword. Indy takes a look at him, pulls out his revolver, and blows him away. So in tennis, an Indy is when, after some slow-moving pitty-pat back-and-forthing, someone knocks the stuffing out of the ball for a clear winner.

Bialy—A bagel is a love set. Bialys are a variant of the bagel, obtainable in New York but few other places, that have a thin layer of bread instead of the hole. Hence, a 6-1 set is a bialy.

On Swerve—When numerous players have lost their serve, but the score of the set is either even, or the receiving team is ahead by one.

Bill Clinton—An easy overhead you should dispatch, but you just can’t put it away. Sorry.

What are the best puns you have made or heard? Send ‘em in. I promise—no groaning.


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