Monday, September 15, 2008

Strikethrough Humor Makes It into Print at Newsweek

I bet the inventors of Microsoft Word and HTML never imagined that strikethrough, the typographical markup, would ever be used for comic effect but it's a popular form of humor in blogs. Basically, you say the hard truth, then cross it out and replace it, as if you've just corrected a Freudian slip with a more tactful line, such as "Jack Nicholson needed a new Porshe was drawn to the life-affirming story of The Bucket List." This type of joke, which masquerades as a copyeditor's note that failed to be corrected, fits right in with the casualness of blogs but has never made it into print--until now.

In the September 22 issue of Newsweek, this line from Daniel Gross' column "Lemons, But No Lehman Aid" caught my eye:
It was sure to be another long weekend for Henry Paulson, who is doing an admirable job running the country serving as Treasury secretary.

The strikethrough looked out of place on the glossy page--it wasn't unwelcome, but it was unexpected. Daniel Gross writes the Moneybox column on Slate and also kept a personal blog. However, he migrated his blog to Newsweek as "The Money Culture" column in July 2007. Given the origin of this column, it's not surprising that Gross' column is the first place, as far as I can tell, where strikethrough humor has made it into print.

However what is surprising is that the joke was removed from the column's online version. There, the column is called "What, No Lehman Aid?" and the line simply appears as:
It was sure to be another long weekend for Henry Paulson.

Given the origin of strikethrough humor, one wonders why the line was removed from the online version, but appeared in print. I have to guess that what seemed like a cute novelty in a print column may, in an online context, have threatened to make a serious column look like a flippant post. In an age where popular bloggers can whip out unedited musings and rants, newspapers and magazines may be working hard to maintain the signs and signifiers that show that they maintain professional standards. I would love to see a linguist take this on--paging Geoffrey Nunberg!

Update: In trying to discover how long strikethrough humor has been around, I found this 2005 Business Week Blogspotting post on the matter. The author, Stephen Baker, was not happy with what he regarded as a new literary device, saying that it made blogs less earnest. He received many comments saying that this type of sarcastic humor has been around since the days of Usenet and to cut bloggers some slack. Baker responded "OK, I'm taking some hits on this one. Let's leave it at this: When you see me strike through something, it's because I'm correcting it. And if I read a strike-through on someone else's blog and can't figure out whether it's a joke or a correction, I don't know whether to laugh or grumble."

So what do you think--should a "professional" blog or printed column employ the strikethrough to indicate sarcasm? Or is it such a new phenomenon that it's not likely to be recognized as such?

1 comment:

CKL said...

Some people just can't appreciate sarcasm.

To me, strikeout humor is the written equivalent of the stand-up comic who says "I really admire Jennifer Love Hewitt's boobs, I mean, acting." It's sort of a degenerate form of preterition. I don't object to it in "traditional media," and I view it as a style choice.

The plain-text version, often seen on Usenet back in the day, was ^H/^W (the character/word delete control sequences from the emacs text editor). Okay for newsgroups, not so great for peer-reviewed journal articles.

There are many other, much more formal ways to mock someone. And there are venues where mocking is frowned upon. Also dangling participles and sentence fragments. WHATEVS

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