A zeugmatic crash blossom to torment Mets fans

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As if New York Mets fans don't have to suffer enough, what with the five straight losing seasons and the embarrassing bullpen meltdown in yesterday's home opener, this headline (tweeted by Mark Fishkin) appeared in today's Wall Street Journal:


The online version has the same crash blossom in the subhead: "Mets Blow a Save and Fan 18 Times in Opening Loss." [Update: It's now been changed online to read, "Mets Blow a Save, Strike Out 18 Times in Opening Loss."] If the unfortunate ambiguity is lost on you, consider the two possible readings. In the intended reading, there are conjoined predicates indicating that the Mets blew a save and also "fanned" (struck out) 18 times:

[Mets blow a save] and [(Mets) fan 18 times]

The crash-blossom-y reading relies on the rhetorical figure known as "syllepsis," aka "zeugma," in which a word (generally a verb) pulls syntactic and semantic double-duty in an elliptical coordination. So that's:

[Mets blow a save] and [(Mets blow a) fan 18 times]

Here, "fan" is the object of the verb "blow," which can, of course, mean something completely different. This zeugmatic play with the meaning of "blow" is reminiscent of the line from the 1969 Rolling Stones song, "Honky Tonk Women": "She blew my nose and then she blew my mind." Since the verb "blew" is repeated, it doesn't quite count as a zeugma, so Arnold Zwicky suggests calling it a "zeugmoid." I talked about this zeugmoid in my Word Routes column for Vocabulary.com a couple of years ago, though I stuck to the surface meaning of nose-blowing and mind-blowing. As commenters noted, "blew my nose" could also be read as a reference to being offered cocaine, and "blew my mind" could be a veiled reference to fellatio. In the Wall Street Journal's crash blossom, there's nothing veiled about the sexual meaning of "blow."

Deadspin's comment on the headline is "commas are your friends." While most style guides would recommend against inserting a comma between two VPs in a compound predicate (e.g., here and here), in this case a comma after "save" would surely have helped.

(Hat tip, Lane Greene.)

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27 Comments »

  1. A.D. said,

    April 1, 2014 @ 11:27 am

    Has been corrected in online version.

    "Mets Blow a Save, Strike Out 18 Times in Opening Loss"

    [(bgz) Thanks -- I've updated the post.]

  2. Ellen K. said,

    April 1, 2014 @ 11:56 am

    It doesn't help that, for those of us who didn't know fan = strike out, the headline is very opaque. (I'm assuming folks generally know the unintended reading is just that, even when it's the only sensible reading we can get from it.)

  3. Coby Lubliner said,

    April 1, 2014 @ 11:56 am

    Shouldn't it be zeugmatoid?

  4. Francois Lang said,

    April 1, 2014 @ 12:15 pm

    Especially amusing for me, because my Beijing-born wife's given name is "Fan"!

  5. anya said,

    April 1, 2014 @ 2:02 pm

    This one's a zeugmund.

  6. David Morris said,

    April 1, 2014 @ 2:35 pm

    For those of us that don't know what 'blow a save' means, the headline is very opaque.

  7. Peter Taylor said,

    April 1, 2014 @ 3:14 pm

    For people who don't know the sport (and for all I know, also for those who do), the scope of 18 times is also ambiguous.

  8. hector said,

    April 1, 2014 @ 3:37 pm

    Ah yes, anti-comma prejudice. As someone who read too many 19th-century novels at an impressionable age, I often find myself using commas in places that are now considered highly objectionable.

    Perhaps some day, commas will come back into their own, and appear here, there, and everywhere. One can only hope.

  9. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 1, 2014 @ 3:47 pm

    Some styles of journalism are written on the assumption that the reader may know very little about the subject matter (or at least that different readers will have different levels of prior acquaintance), but I think sportswriting presumes a fairly high bar of minimum familiarity with the sport in question, including its particular specialized jargon. The assumption is that people who don't understand baseball are not going to be reading the baseball coverage in the first place so there is no need to make it comprehensible to outsiders/novices — it's the opposite of the approach you'd take when you presume that a week previously the majority of your readers couldn't have told you if "Crimea" was a man or a horse, but now you're running front-page stories about it so you have to get them oriented.

  10. Graeme said,

    April 1, 2014 @ 6:46 pm

    Tough on the author of Guns, Germs, Steel to have to adapt to sportslese.

  11. GeorgeW said,

    April 1, 2014 @ 7:45 pm

    @Graeme: Huh? Sorry for being obtuse, but I don't get it.

  12. Ben Zimmer said,

    April 1, 2014 @ 8:01 pm

    Graeme is conflating this Jared Diamond with this Jared Diamond.

  13. Sili said,

    April 1, 2014 @ 8:02 pm

    "fanned" (struck out)

    Since that usage is completely unknown to this furriner, only the wrong reading suggested itself to me.

  14. Dan Lufkin said,

    April 1, 2014 @ 8:06 pm

    @GeorgeW — Jared Diamond (q.G.) is the author of Guns, etc and many other serious books. Maybe someone in the spirit of this palindromic date thought about broadening the referent of diamond.

  15. Dan Lufkin said,

    April 1, 2014 @ 8:08 pm

    @BZ — Why, fancy that!

  16. Mr Punch said,

    April 2, 2014 @ 7:32 am

    Are we using fewer commas, or just deploying them differently. I see a lot of uses like "a big, red house," in which my teachers 50-60 years ago would have circled the comma in red.

  17. John Lawler said,

    April 2, 2014 @ 10:16 am

    Syllepsis amd zeugma are cool Greek names for Greek grammatical phenomena similar to the English grammar phenomenon called Conjunction Reduction. It's on p. 7 of the list here.

  18. Ted said,

    April 2, 2014 @ 1:18 pm

    I don't think this is really a crash blossom. The two complements of blow in the zeugmatic reading are an abstract noun (save, a baseball statistic) and a concrete noun (fan, an ardent supporter). I suppose it's possible to see these as parallel, as Fishkin did, but this is rather a strained reading, because the headline distinguishes between the two words by using an article with save and not with fan, despite the convention that articles are generally omitted from headlines.

    This forces a save to be read as a noun. More importantly for this discussion, however, it also renders anarthrous fan, if read as a noun, not parallel with a save. It's possible that the editors departed from conventional anarthrous practice specifically to avoid the unintended risqué reading, although I think it's as likely that they were simply concerned about the confusion that generally might result from the fact that blow, save, and fan can all function as both verbs and nouns. Or, perhaps most likely, they wanted to be clear that 18 times applied only to the fanning, while the save-blowing occurred only once.

    Furthermore, fan as a noun has a second meaning, an appliance, which is cognate with fan as a verb and semantically linked to blow in a way that's grammatically inconsistent with the sentence structure and logically inconsistent with the unintended risqué reading. (Fans blow things; things don't blow fans. In this sense, we all live in Soviet Russia.)

    If we're going to read fan as a noun, it has to be a singular noun. But then zeugma would require a fan to be consistent with the rendering of singular save as a save.

    As a result, the sentence seems to strongly suggest that fan should be read as a verb. Fishkin's reading isn't impossible, but it isn't natural. This, to me, is far from a true crash blossom.

    Compare Mets Blow Save and Fan 18 Times in Opening Loss, which I think is genuinely zeugmatic and invites the risqué interpretation. (Indeed, the fan would be spectacularly lucky, albeit no doubt exhausted).

    And, a fortiori, Mets Blow a Save and a Fan 18 Times in Opening Loss, where the risqué reading is the only one possible.

  19. Zizoz said,

    April 2, 2014 @ 6:24 pm

    Despite not knowing the baseball-related meanings of "save" and "fan" I was still only able to come up with the intended syntax. The lack of an article preceding "fan" prevented me, like Ted, from finding the risqué meaning.

  20. Ben Zimmer said,

    April 2, 2014 @ 7:01 pm

    @Ted and @Zizoz: While it's not a perfect crash blossom, we've already heard from a few commenters who could only get the crash-blossom-y reading, because of their lack of familiarity with the intransitive verb "fan." Unless you're steeped in baseball headlinese, your internal parser may very well try to read "fan" as a noun, even if it's lacking parallelism with arthrous "save." And anyway, who says arthrousness has to be parallel in this kind of coordination? Don't people often say things like "I have a cat and dog"?

  21. Andrew Bay said,

    April 3, 2014 @ 9:40 am

    Since headlinese drops articles, you are at liberty to add them back in. Ignorance of fanning as a verb meaning to strike out lead me to two wrong interpretations. I got the risque one and trying to figure out if there was a mechanical issue with piece of cooling equipment intermittently operating 18 times.

  22. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 3, 2014 @ 9:50 am

    In case anyone is still trying to compile examples, here's another mildly-risque"zeugmoid" I just recalled from the vast corpus of old rock lyrics, but using a noun rather than verb for the lexical-repetition-with-semantic-variation: "We all got balls and brains / But some's got balls and chains." — from 10cc's 1973 hit (well, #1 in the UK but only #73 in the US, says wikipedia) "Rubber Bullets," a somewhat arch updating of the "Jailhouse Rock" theme.

  23. Ellen K. said,

    April 3, 2014 @ 1:08 pm

    @Zizoz. I'll admit, the risque reading comes across as either badly written or an intentional double meaning, if I were to think of it as the correct reading, which I never did. Still, it's not blocked by the odd grammar.

    On the other hand, for me, the reading with "fan" as the action of an air current creating device (which Andrew Bay mentions) is blocked due to the lack of an object.

  24. Ted said,

    April 3, 2014 @ 5:01 pm

    Intransitive fan is attested to at least 1957:

    I can fan with the fan
    As I hop on the ball.
    But that is not all!
    Oh, no! That is not all!

    I will not reveal the source, as the question of whether to reveal the things that went on there that day remains unresolved.

  25. Nathan said,

    April 4, 2014 @ 1:01 pm

    Ted, I read it to my daughters last night. I won't tell Mom if you don't.

  26. Ellen K. said,

    April 5, 2014 @ 8:55 am

    Ted, irrelevant. I didn't say "fan" can't ever be intransitive. I was talking about that headline in particular.

  27. mimhoff said,

    April 9, 2014 @ 1:55 am

    In music recently we have Daft Punk's "Let's raise the bar and our cups to the stars".

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