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January 23, 2004

Headlining Dean

I read a headline in WaPo this morning on the Metro in to the office: "Dean Tries a Self-Deprecation Strategy ." The word that interested me is "Tries." Why did the headline writer choose that word and not another? A few came to mind immediately: "changes to," "switches to," and "moves to." Yet the editors went with "tries."

One possibility is that "tries" is simply more concise. Headlines should be terse. Against that we have the less than terse conclusion, however, "a self-deprecation strategy." An obvious shortening would be "Dean Tries Self-Deprecation," and, in fact, the WaPo web edition uses exactly this on the main page. Thus, WaPo itself suggests it went with "Tries" on the dead tree edition intentionally and not simply to keep the headline short.

Few words are islands. They all carry a long reefs of associations from past usage, from phrases which they routinely inhabit, and even from the bedrock words from which they thrust up above the surface. I don't intent to probe the foundations (my reference works are still in Atlanta), but we can cast more than a passing glance at the implications inherent in this headline. Before looking at the chosen word itself, let's look at some alternates and their connotations.

"Changes to," "switches to," or "shifts to" seem to me the most neutral possibilities. These phrases carry no immediately obvious negative connotation. Perhaps it's the use of "to" which implies a positive change that counters and balances the unsaid "from." When we change to something we necessarily also change from something. We might be forced to make the change because the old state is no longer possible or because it has proven to be unproductive, but we could as easily simply be changing for the sake of change itself. While allowing that we all have individual experiences of and with language, I think I can posit these are neutral without too much disagreement. WaPo did not choose any of these constructions, and there are many others that could be substituted.

One that doesn't quite fit nicely is "moves to." This one calls to mind others that group more comfortably here than in the prior category, and they help illuminate the difference: "proceeds to" or "advances to" add implications of a positive motion and a plan. Where the prior category captures more of a sense of a change of direction or state, this one suggests actual movement. Again the "to" is a positive. While the first, "moves to" is the least positive, all of these give a sense of action and of action done in a positive sense. WaPo did not use any of these.

Yes, we can argue that all of these have a "from" and a "to" side in their pure denotative senses. And we can rationally prod and poke at them and show how they all mean the same thing, at their most basic level: all of them indicate a change in state from one to another. But language doesn't work that way in daily practice, and newspaper headllines most certainly are not careful legal or philosophical arguments. In the way they use language they share more in common with poetry than with a Supreme Court brief. The latter can carefully define any less than well-defined term, building on the foundation of agreed-upon words to construct a comparatively tight structure that communicates a very complex idea, explores it, and derives a reasoned conclusion. A poem, seeks to cram as much as it can into as few words as possible, so it seeks to employ words in ways that force them to do double and triple duty.

WaPo went with "tries." "Try," some might argue, has positive connotations too. "Try try again" is an admonition to persistence, that keeping at it will in the end prevail. But that is removing the context: "If at first you don't succeed." The admonition is a remedy to failure.

Then we have circulating still things such as Avis's (misbegotten in my opinion) slogan "We try harder." Why they chose that instead of "we work harder" I'll never understand. I'd much rather have a car rental company working to give me good service than trying to give me good service. "Try" describes intent; "work" requires action.

"Try" also reminds us that the possibility of success is balanced by the possibility of failure. "Try" is tentative, not positive. "Trying times" are times that test us. Encapsulated in "tries" in that headline are Dean's apparent failure in the Iowa Caucus, which is probably appropriate, but also an implicit suggestion that this is not part of a plan. He's trying self-deprecation, but it may not work. There's a feeling of desperation on Dean's part in the headline. That may actually be accurate.

Oddly, the "tries" makes the "strategy" tag into irony. The baggage that "try" carries of tentativeness clashes with the planning implicit in "strategy." The tension between tentativeness and planning makes it seem as if WaPo is poking fun of Dean. Perhaps it is.

We could assume that this headline was casually dashed off, not carefully considered. But that would (aside from giving WaPo less credit than it is due for caring about the importance of headlines) suggest that the chosen word was the first that came to the writer's mind when dashing off a hurried headline, which would be indicative of unconscious thoughts. So that would in no way diminish the value of this examination.

But now that I've read the article in question I can safely opine that the construct was intentional. The article is very negative about Dean's campaign, pre-supposing he has lost and must do something to again have a chance to win in the primary process. It's a good headline in the sense that it summarizes the article well. The tension between "tries" and "strategy" expresses the gist that while the Dean campaign may be spinning their shift to self-deprecation as a strategy, WaPo sees it as a desperate attempt to get back into the primary popularity contest. And by saying so, WaPo diminshes Dean's chances of success.

Posted by dan at January 23, 2004 10:06 AM | TrackBack
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