Aww, shucks — this headline just doesn’t work

Jim Romenesko’s website calls our attention to a recent headline in the Montgomery Advertiser in Alabama. The story is about Auburn University’s narrow defeat to Florida State in college football’s championship game. That’s front-page news for papers in Alabama and Florida, and perhaps elsewhere.

au-shucksThe “AU SHUCKS” headline didn’t go over well with Auburn fans who apparently read “shucks” and “sucks.” Tom Clifford, the editor of the Montgomery paper, reported that he received a “barrage” of phone calls and email from furious readers.

Clifford defended the headline on the grounds that it was clever wordplay on an abbreviation of the school’s name. The intent was something like this: “Aww, shucks. Auburn almost won that game.” Clifford noted that this headline followed through on previous ones in the Advertiser about Auburn victories such as “SHOCK AND AU” and “AU YEAH!”

I asked my colleague Chris Roush what he thought of the headline. Roush, who teaches business journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill, is an Auburn alumnus who follows the football team closely. Here’s his response:

“As an Auburn fan, it doesn’t bother me. But as an advocate of good word usage, it is a poor headline. When I think of shucks, I think of opening raw oysters. I don’t understand how that can be compared to Auburn losing a football game. I think the headline writer tried too hard in this case. But it’s not offending to me as a third-generation Auburn graduate.”

I agree. I have no connection to Auburn, so my measure for assessing this headline is the “pun form” created by Steve Merelman, a former News & Observer editor who now works at Bloomberg.

“AU SHUCKS” fails the first point in Merelman’s six-part test of whether a wordplay headline should be published or posted: “The headline makes immediate sense to the reader and does not distort syntax or usage to make the pun and/or wordplay.”

This headline doesn’t make immediate sense to me. My brain doesn’t hear “AU” as “awww.” My eyes see “AU” the way you would say that aloud: “A-U.” So “AU SHUCKS” baffled me when I first read it. Other readers, for whatever reason, are reading “shucks” as “sucks.” I didn’t and can’t explain why some people see it that way.

It’s obvious that the Advertiser didn’t mean to offend its audience; it would be bad for business to insult its readers or an entire fanbase in football-crazy Alabama. But this is a headline that needed a rewrite before it went into print. Next time, use the Merelman Test.

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