Wednesday, July 11, 2007
A commenter on a previous post bemoaned a headline that referred to a lawsuit over pants as a "pants suit." That case happened in my dear city, and indeed my newspaper used the phrase more than once. This raises an intriguing question: Are self-respecting headline writers at sophisticated publications duty-bound to go into contortions to avoid even the appearance of a cutesy play on words, even when that phrase is the most obvious, natural and succinct way of getting the idea across?
I'm struggling to come up with another example. There are some cousins -- I've said bad things about the reflexive use of fine wine, though you could argue that the odd little word fine is a perfect pairing for that term, which is intended to say a lot while saying very little. The grocer or restaurateur who claims to offer such libations isn't necessarily saying they're grrrrrrrrreat -- just that they are of a certain quality beyond the point where all reds are "burgundy" and all whites are "chablis." But I think it's a pat term best left to menus, ads and signage.
A thoroughly modern equivalent is "nip slip," which by its very genre is immune to this sort of criticism. My instinct on "pants suit" is to go ahead and use it in a tight headline count while pretending not to notice its giggle-worthy qualities. Maintain a noncommittal gaze at an imaginary object in the near distance, as though your mother-in-law were committing a nip slip.