On July 4, 1996, when President Bill Clinton visited Maryland’s Eastern Shore, a bald eagle named Freedom, which had been nursed back to health after an injury, was released into the sky to commemorate the occasion.

Unfortunately, Freedom was attacked by a couple of ospreys and ended up back in the bird hospital. When The Baltimore Sun put the story on its front page, the task of writing a headline fell to Paul Clark, one of the ablest copy editors I have ever worked with. He came up with "Freedom’s just another bird/ with nothing left to lose."

That headline was applauded in the newsroom and praised in the in-house newsletter. But when I offer it up as an example of the craft to my copy editing students at Loyola College, I get a roomful of blank looks. Janis Joplin singing "Me and Bobby McGhee" is presumably the kind of music that only older people listen to.

One consequence of the increasing cultural fragmentation of American society has been the loss of a common vocabulary of allusion, a problem for all writers, not just headline writers. Increasingly, when a writer tries to enhance a point by an apposite allusion, he or she has to wonder whether the reader will get it.

An obvious factor is generational. We of the baby boom generation have typically imagined that we are the measure of all things, that our experience is universal. But think about those blank looks from the undergraduates. Or worse, their eye-rolling.

An article some time back in The Sun opened by saying that one county’s delegation to the Maryland General Assembly "could borrow a line from the late comedian Jimmy Durante and use it as a motto: ‘Everybody wants to get into the act!’" Well, the Great Durante died in 1980, a generation ago. His television show went off the air in 1957, his last film performance was in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World in 1963, and he made occasional television appearances as late as The Sonny and Cher Hour in 1970. For any reader under 30, we might as well have mentioned Jenny Lind.

(Additionally, Durante’s signature line could be plugged into any of half a dozen stories on any given day. What could be used in any story probably should not be used in any story.)

A similar problem turns up with writers who are unable to let go of dated commercial slogans or jingles—the people who still imagine that "Where’s the beef?" has resonance.

But generational differences only begin to explain the situation. Cultural diversity has increasingly led to the loss of common frames of reference.

In Murder Must Advertse in 1933, Dorothy Sayers could include a plot device that turned on a newspaper advertisement containing the words "stale, flat and unprofitable," assuming that an allusion to Hamlet would be readily recognizable to a general readership. In America, no one can assume any longer that nearly every high school student has read, say, Julius Caesar; indeed, it is alarmingly the case that a student can apparently spend four years in high school and another four in college without ever coming across a single work of Shakespeare. References to Shakespeare, which used to be the common coin of allusion, are no longer safe.

The other great source of common reference, the Bible, has also gotten tricky. Though the Authorized, or King James, Version of 1611 remains in common use in evangelical denominations, those that continue to call themselves mainline have increasingly turned to more recent translations. In addition, the growing diversity of belief (and unbelief) in this country suggests that reader familiarity with any particular religious book is no longer a safe assumption.  

Popular culture has moved well beyond the three television networks that broadcast the shows that the baby boomers recollect and go to see when they are recast as nostalgic movies or reunion shows. Popular music has grown equally fragmented. The one area in which allusion appears to remain lively is the movies, particularly comedies, which revel in presenting pastiches of earlier movies.

What is a writer to do?

  • Is the allusion you want to use appropriate to the subject? If it could be used just as easily in other contexts, or serves mainly to highlight your own broad knowledge and deep sophistication, then it is probably a bad idea. Don’t show off. Try something else.

  • Will the passage be understood clearly by a reader who does not catch the reference? Allusion should enrich the reader’s experience by providing an additional layer of meaning. But if it gets in the way of grasping the principal meaning, it is intrusive and counterproductive.

  • The headline "'It’s dead, Jim,'" about the end of the last Star Trek television series, generated a set of exchanges at testycopyeditors.org among fans of Star Trek, people who loathe Star Trek, and people who are entirely indifferent to Star Trek. The appropriateness of an allusion to a catchphrase from the original series of more than 35 years ago speedily got lost, as Web discussions tend to do, in a thicket of personal preferences. But what I recognize and what I prefer may or may not have any connection with what the reader will recognize and respond to.

  • This gets to the fundamental point that no writer can afford to ignore: Who is in the audience? You can afford to be at least moderately literary if your readers are college-educated—even if they don’t get the reference, they will never admit to ignorance. But newspapers and Web sites try to cast a wide net, to include multitudes of readers who did not go to college, or who do not know the books you have read, the films you have seen, the songs you have listened to.

No one wants to give up allusion, but there is no escaping the slipperiness of the technique. As Sergeant Esterhaus used to urge on Hill Street Blues, "Be careful out there."

John McIntyre is The Sun's assistant managing editor for the copy desk. He is a former president of the American Copy Editors Society, of which he is a charter member, and he has taught copy editing at Loyola College of Maryland since 1995.