A sour note

I stayed overnight in my hometown of Philadelphia last week, and my dad gave me a front page he'd torn from the Metro, a free paper in the city. The main headline contained a relatively obscure word that was never explained in either of the paper's stories on the subject:

New busking rules hit dissonant chord

To busk is to "play music or perform entertainment in a public place, usually while soliciting money," according to the American Heritage Dictionary. I knew this, but only because I'd read a review of a movie about a busker a year or so ago.

Once you read the story, you can probably figure out what busking means. But the word isn't even used in the story, and I think it's a terrible word to use in a headline. I'm not sure if the headline writer was trying to be clever or just to find a shorthand for "street performance." Part of the problem might have been that the headline writer wanted to use the "dissonant chord" pun, so they didn't have much room left to actually explain what the story is about.

I'm all for introducing readers to new words, but not in headlines unless it is immediately clear in the headline what the word means. This is almost impossible, given the 4-10 words we get to use in a typical headline. Better to leave new words to the actual story. (Not that busking is in this particular story.) Headlines need to be clear the first time they are read, or people won't read the story the headline is supposed to be selling. (I'm guilty of violating this rule myself, and I've had plenty of headlines nixed that were "clever" but unclear. But I'm learning.)

American Heritage gives an uncertain etymology for busk: "Earlier, to be an itinerant performer, probably from busk, to go about seeking, cruise as a pirate, perhaps from obsolete French busquer, to prowl, from Italian buscare, to prowl, or Spanish buscar, to seek, from Old Spanish boscar."