Spelling it out

Want to make me laugh? Just tell one of those classic, told-to-death, guy-walks-into-a-bar-and-says-ouch jokes, and I will drop whatever I’m doing to giggle, at least. I find few things as delightful as the good old double-entendre English-major joke, where one spelling of a word has two different meanings. I’m an unabashed English-major geek. Playing within the complex patchwork of rules of this language is a game that keeps me fully absorbed. I get a kick out of mentally copy-editing street signs. I use the dictionary recreationally. I’m a big fan of proper spelling.

So, it wasn’t without careful consideration that I headlined last week’s feature story “The kids are alright,” in honor of the 1979 album by The Who, The Kids Are Alright. Here in the newsroom, we often use a cultural reference in a headline in an attempt to convey the gist of the story in a way that readers will recognize and remember. (We also try to look culturally hip.)

We batted the idea around for a while. Are the kids “alright” or are the kids “all right”? There seemed to be some danger of alienating readers who started purchasing albums after 1979 (unless they were fans of Offspring’s 1998 “The Kids Aren’t Alright” on the Americana CD).

The point is that not every reader will be familiar with every cultural reference we make. (Admittedly, I once modeled a film review headline after a book by French philosopher Georges Bataille. Obscure, I know. You’ve gotta fend off that daily-grind feeling somehow.)

It turns out plenty of people aren’t fans of The Who. One reader called to express her disdain at what looked to her like careless spelling. Like anyone, I sometimes make mistakes. And like anyone who’s paying attention, I learn a lot from the inevitable letters and calls that stream in whenever I make one. But, in this case, (heads up: I will now quote from a very silly 1985 movie starring Paul Reubens) “I meant to do that.”