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Billy Bragg has an album entitled, 'Talking with the Taxman about Poetry'. I want to entitle an essay, 'Talking with the Gasman about Yoga'. What is this called, and what is the best way to give credit to Billy Bragg? I want to acknowledge that I am borrowing the style of his title, but I don't believe I am stealing it...

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  • Your title is a play on his title. – Jim Jul 21 '17 at 14:50
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    You could add a footnote 'With apologies to Billy Bragg'. – Kate Bunting Jul 21 '17 at 15:09
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    Or even with apologies to Vladimir Mayakovsky. Unless you are suggesting that Gasmen in general have a concern as the balance of effort and rewards from Yoga, or authority over you if you don't render society its due from your yoga rewards, what you are doing is just pressing words other people used into your service, to paraphrase from 'Talking to the Taxman about Poetry'. Not borrowing the style of his words, but the shape of them without regard to content. – Spagirl Jul 21 '17 at 15:20
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    @KateBunting You should post that as the answer. :-) – MikeJRamsey56 Jul 21 '17 at 16:21
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    Billy Bragg's sleeve notes apparently credit it simply 'Mayakovsky poem from 1926. English Translation © Raduga Publishers 1985.' – Spagirl Jul 21 '17 at 19:49
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As suggested in the comments, you would probably call this a play on the title.

  1. to play on (also upon) words (also the word): to pun; to make a play on words.
  • OED

Using wordplay of this sort is very common in headline writing (and other kinds of titling), and although you're free to reference the original work in your article, precedent suggests that this is not required (especially see example 3 below). If the original work is well known, the reader can be expected to understand the wordplay. If the work is less well known, the wordplay could be considered an inside joke. This works best if the title makes sense outside the context of the play on words, which in your case, it sounds like it would. The odd construction probably wouldn't throw off any readers since most well-read folks are used to playful, punny headlines and wouldn't think twice.

Consider these examples:

  • "Ok Commuter" from The Guardian: This article focuses on albums the writer likes listening to while commuting to and from work. To those who know the rock band Radiohead, it's very clear that this is a reference to their 1997 album OK Computer, but to people who don't catch the wordplay, it's probably not relevant. No credit or acknowledgment is given to Radiohead in the article; you either get it or you don't.

  • "Highway 101 Revisited" from San Diego Magazine: This article about Old Highway 101 makes no mention of Bob Dylan or the number 61, but it's certainly a play on Dylan's 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited. Again, there is no reference to the original work.

Oh! And here's one that seems appropriate to your situation:

  • "Talking with the taxman about pot," from The Financial Times: This article about tax policy and legalized marijuana is a play on the exact phrase you're considering (though as discussed below, the Billy Bragg title is not the original source of this quote, which comes from a poem by Vladimir Mayakovsky). Note that the article itself makes no mention of Billy Bragg, Mayakovsky, or poetry. There is no clue given that it is a reference to an album title or poem, except for those who know the album/poem and pick up on the wordplay.

From these hastily curated examples, I think we can conclude that titles making wordplay from an album title don't require a credit by precedent. The only concern worth addressing was the desire you expressed in the question: I want to acknowledge that I am borrowing the style of his title. You can do that by making reference to the original work in your article, either by weaving in a reference that gives the reader a subtle clue as to the origin of your title, or, as suggested by Kate Bunting in the comments, you could add a playful footnote making reference to the original work.

A word of caution related to this particular phrase:

As pointed out by Spagirl in comments, this album title is drawn word-for-word from a much older source, the title of a poem by Vladimir Mayakovsky from 1926. Billy Bragg offers an acknowledgment of this in the album's liner notes, because unlike a play on words, the album title is a verbatim use of another writer's words. This is worth being aware of, because if you offer a reference to Billy Bragg in your article, readers who are aware of the earlier poem might consider it a misattribution.

The Financial Times piece, which does not address the source of its title aside from the clear wordplay, might have used those words with reference to Mayakovsky or to Bragg, it really depends on which the writer was more aware of, or whom the writer expected readers to draw a connection to.

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  • Like the original poem by Vladimir Mayakovsky the FT piece relates to taxation, in the FT case to marijuana and the original to poetry, so the FT can fairly be said to echo the style. Unless the OP's piece references gas policy in relation to yoga, it echoes the form only, lacking the complexity of content fundamental to the style. The album title isn't the original source, the album is named for the poem. The poem and album both have overtly political aspects. The FT article directly parallels the poem in the theme of allowability of deductions of for business expense. – Spagirl Jul 21 '17 at 19:33
  • @Spagirl thanks for drawing attention to the poem, I edited the answer to avoid missing that crucial point. – RaceYouAnytime Jul 21 '17 at 19:50
  • A play on words is usually a double entendre or similar. one thing being a play on another is different, in my book, than a play on words. – Jim Jul 21 '17 at 20:03
  • As a literary device, the title is an 'allusion' to others' work. While "the name of Mayakovsky hangs in the clean [bourgeois] air" it is also a possibly unintended obscure reference to his poem. – JEL Jul 22 '17 at 1:23

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