Crash blossoms

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From John McIntyre:

You've heard about the Cupertino. You have seen the eggcorn. You know about the snowclone. Now — flourish by trumpets and hautboys — we have the crash blossom.

At Testy Copy Editors.com, a worthy colleague, Nessie3, posted this headline:

Violinist linked to JAL crash blossoms

(If this seems a bit opaque, and it should, the story is about a young violinist whose career has prospered since the death of her father in a Japan Airlines crash in 1985.)

A quick response by subtle_body suggested that crash blossom would be an excellent name for headlines done in by some such ambiguity — a word understood in a meaning other than the intended one. The elliptical name of headline writing makes such ambiguities an inevitable hazard.

And danbloom was quick to set up a blog to collect examples of "infelicitously worded headlines."

Chris Waigl, reporting on the same neologism, describes "crash blossoms" as "those train wrecks of newspaper headlines that lead us down the garden path to end up against a wall, scratching our head and wondering what on earth the subeditor might possibly have been thinking." Indeed, when such infelicitous headlines have come up here on Language Log, they have typically been discussed as examples of "garden path sentences." After the break, a recent headline of the classic "garden path" variety.

On Sunday night, this headline appeared on the CNN Wire before events took a more tragic turn:

3 missing after waves hit Maine located

The lede graf of the story explained:

Three people missing Sunday after large ocean waves knocked several people into the Atlantic off Maine's Acadia National Park have been located, a park official said.

(The headline and lede graf were quickly replaced after news emerged that one of the three people, a 7-year-old girl, had died.)

As John McIntyre points out, headlines are particularly susceptible to improper "garden path" parsing, since the elliptical nature of headlinese can lead to various syntactic ambiguities. In this example, we're so used to copula deletion in headlines that "3 missing…" is easily parsed as "3 are missing…" But by the time we get to "located" at the end of the headline, we discover that this is a misparsing. Following the structure of the lede, the headline is intended to be read as "3 [people] missing after waves hit Maine [have been] located." I'd be impressed if anyone got that reading the first time through.

For more garden path headlines, see:

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60 Comments »

  1. PaulatNorthGare said,

    August 26, 2009 @ 10:34 pm

    From the Oregonian: "Biscuit lands head for logging".

    http://ecoearth.info/shared/reader/print.aspx?linkid=57290

  2. Bobbie said,

    August 26, 2009 @ 10:41 pm

    Crash Blossoms — great name for a band! Or a weird display of Japanese cherry flowers!

  3. codeman38 said,

    August 26, 2009 @ 10:50 pm

    I posted about a garden path headline on my personal blog last October:

    "Obama’s ad buys dwarf TV presence of McCain"

    It took me several reads to figure out that it had nothing to do with Obama hiring a little person for one of his ads…

  4. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    August 26, 2009 @ 10:50 pm

    @Bobbie: I'd imagine a band named Crash Blossoms would have to be an early '90s nostalgia act, covering songs by the likes of Crash Test Dummies and the Gin Blossoms. (Takes you right back to '93, when "Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm" and "Hey Jealousy" were alt-rock hits.)

  5. codeman38 said,

    August 26, 2009 @ 11:09 pm

    Also, am I the only one who thinks that "Crash Blossoms" would make a wonderful name for an anime or manga? Particularly one featuring a lot of what TV Tropes terms "dissonant serenity"

  6. Randy Hudson said,

    August 27, 2009 @ 12:14 am

    There's a classic collection of such headlines, Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim, by the Columbia Journalism Review. For instance:
    Juvenile Court to Try Shooting Defendant
    Stud Tires Out
    Reagan Wins on Budget, but More Lies Ahead
    Miners Refuse to Work after Death

    And not from that book, I think, but really wonderful:
    British Left Waffles on Falkland Islands

  7. Chris Crawford said,

    August 27, 2009 @ 12:35 am

    I still have "Red Tape Holds Up New Bridge", also from the Columbia Journalism Review.

  8. Peter Metcalfe said,

    August 27, 2009 @ 1:07 am

    The "3 missing…" headline would have been less ambiguous had it been "Missing 3…". Not that the sentence is no longer clumsy but by the time you read "after", you're already interpreting it as a phase to be completed further down the sentence.

  9. Lunatyk said,

    August 27, 2009 @ 1:45 am

    strangely enough, "3 people missing" was the first thing that came to mind…

  10. Cheryl Thornett said,

    August 27, 2009 @ 2:07 am

    Sometimes misleading headlines can be rather cruel, as this subhead to a link, found on the BBC news site some months ago, shows:

    Why some women risk having children with birth defects

    The actual article deals with a group of young women who were heavily sedated while housed in a particular care facility as teenagers and who now, as adult women, have given birth to children with birth defects. 'Are at risk of' would seem to me to be a more accurate phrase. This headline seems to imply that they either indulged in risky behaviour or knew there was a risk of defects and went ahead with pregnancies. In fact, the young women concerned did not know they had a higher than usual chance of having children with birth defects until it was much too late.
    When you get to the actual article, the headline is the more accurate 'Living with the legacy of care'.

  11. Ceiswyn said,

    August 27, 2009 @ 3:15 am

    I still remember the rather lovely 'Body find is missing man'. I reckon there are three or four possible meanings to that one.

  12. Jon said,

    August 27, 2009 @ 4:12 am

    A couple of famous ones from the second world war:
    Monty flies back to front
    French push bottles up German rear
    (That sounds too good to be genuine, but is widely claimed to be so.)
    Private Eye used to publish books of these headlines. One of my favourites was:
    Voodoo dogs flying doctor's planes

  13. Alex said,

    August 27, 2009 @ 4:22 am

    That headline is repaired by some simple punctuation:

    3, missing after waves hit Maine, located

    Although it's hardly a masterpiece of headline writing!

  14. Chris Waigl said,

    August 27, 2009 @ 4:50 am

    I thought of a band name, too. Or a book title (a novel).

  15. Paul said,

    August 27, 2009 @ 5:02 am

    This is intriguing as an example of the garden path. On first reading of "Violinist linked to JAL crash blossoms" I indeed went wrong but, on reflection, I suspect that was because of the priming effect of the title of the post: "Crash blossoms" (which is also used in the quote from John McIntyre before we get to the full headline). I got to the correct reading pretty quickly.

    Am I right in thinking that garden path sentences are usually the ones where parsing happens word by word and then it becomes clear something has gone wrong so the reader has to go back and re-do the parse? I ask this because I think a word-by-word parsing of "Violinist linked to JAL crash blossoms" would actually get you to the correct parse first time, where "crash" is part of a phrase with "JAL" rather than with "blossoms".

    I find these things fascinating because they show up aspects of language which cause problems in the written medium but don't seem to be an issue in spoken language (since we have intonation, rhythm, pauses, etc). I suspect "the horse raced past the barn fell" would be fine in speech, for example (though, being a contrived example, it doesn't sound all that natural to me). Sometimes punctuation helps, but I'm not sure "Violinist (linked to JAL crash) blossoms" looks all that impressive; and it's been said many times on LL that considerations of space might prevent the expansion to "Violinist who was linked to JAL crash blossoms". But, as I say, I'm not (yet) convinced that this example is particularly problematic.

  16. Adrian said,

    August 27, 2009 @ 5:34 am

    I still have Fritz Spiegl's Keep Taking the Tabloids – an excellent guide to the problems/foibles of writing for/in newspapers http://www.amazon.co.uk/Keep-Taking-Tabloids-What-Papers/dp/0330281224/

  17. Peter Taylor said,

    August 27, 2009 @ 5:35 am

    A couple of BBC headlines:
    Letter bombs accused in court
    Mexico mine missing declared dead

    More here: http://www.toothycat.net/wiki/wiki.pl?BBCHeadlines

    PS The link to "Garden paths at the Guardian" is broken. It appears to be missing the http:// and so interpreted as relative rather than absolute.

  18. Innokenti said,

    August 27, 2009 @ 6:10 am

    Garden path headlines aren't great, I've always struggled with the annoying tendency for journalists to use a comma to separate a list of two items. It completely destroys the parsing of anybody even vaguely trying to follow grammar.

  19. Ginger Yellow said,

    August 27, 2009 @ 6:11 am

    I didn't have any trouble interpreting "Violinist linked to JAL crash blossoms", presumably because "crash blossoms", while readily interpreted as a noun phrase, wasn't a phrase that I'd encounted before. The ambiguity would have been much stronger if the phrase already existed.

  20. Bob C said,

    August 27, 2009 @ 7:43 am

    From http://funnies.paco.to/Headlines.html -

    Queen Mary having bottom scraped
    Prostitutes appeal to Pope
    Eye drops off shelf
    Two Soviet ships collide – one dies

  21. Rhoda said,

    August 27, 2009 @ 7:52 am

    The Sun in the UK is the master of headlines. The common understanding is that they keep to short words because of the low literacy level of the readers but this often makes them harder to understand. And the intelligence of the writers leads to some great wordplay – my favourite from about 18 months ago is WAG BAGS NAG SWAG.
    (Colleen McLoughlin, who is married to a football player (WAG = wives and girlfriends of the players) placed a bet on the winner of the Grand National horse race.)

  22. Ginger Yellow said,

    August 27, 2009 @ 8:08 am

    To be fair, the Sun does also churn out a lot of terrible wordplay, usually loosely based on the names of football players. "Wayne is over the Roon" – that sort of thing.

  23. Jennifer Merck said,

    August 27, 2009 @ 9:05 am

    Clearly, a "crash blossom" is when something good comes out of something tragic or sad. I like it. I may start using the term.

  24. Zwicky Arnold said,

    August 27, 2009 @ 9:20 am

    Hard-to-parse and ambiguous headlines are an old standard on Language Log. It would be nice if someone assembled an inventory of these postings.

  25. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    August 27, 2009 @ 10:05 am

    @Jon: Re "French Push Bottles Up German Rear": See my post linked above, "Surprising crocodile kin." It's often given as "British Push…" but in Fritz Spiegl's What The Papers Didn't Mean to Say (1965), the headline reads: "Eighth Army Push Bottles Up German Rear."

    @Jennifer: So, sort of like a "turd blossom"?

  26. MattF said,

    August 27, 2009 @ 10:09 am

    My own favorite is "Soviet Virgin Lands Short of Goal", which was the headline over a story about the ill-fated Soviet "Virgin Lands" project, in case you were wondering. And also, if you google "Soviet Virgin Lands" you get a long list of collections of "crash blossom" headlines.

  27. MattF said,

    August 27, 2009 @ 10:12 am

    Googling "Soviet Virgin Lands Short" works a lot better.

  28. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    August 27, 2009 @ 10:24 am

    Apparently a real headline somewhere in 1982 that gained notoriety in the wordsmith and puzzler community:

    Shark Attacks Puzzle Experts

    This next one is in horrible taste, but supposedly was actually used by the New York Post when Ike Turner died somewhat recently:

    Ike Turner Beats Tina To Death

  29. Mr Fnortner said,

    August 27, 2009 @ 10:27 am

    From my (suspect) recollection of the Sixties, I have indelibly recorded memories of two photo captions: "Astronauts emerge gaily from capsule," and "Marines beat off 500 Viet Cong." Even if apocryphal, they are pearls.

  30. Robert Coren said,

    August 27, 2009 @ 11:39 am

    All right, since everybody else is doing it: My favorite, which I remember appearing in the Boston Globe many years ago, is "Smoking riskier than thought".

  31. John Chambers said,

    August 27, 2009 @ 12:21 pm

    My favorite of all time was the headline from the beginning of the first Gulf War:

    American Ships Head to Gulf

  32. ajay said,

    August 27, 2009 @ 1:12 pm

    …which reminds me of the almost certainly apocryphal "Iraqi Head Seeks Arms" as well as "Headless Body Found In Topless Bar".

  33. dr pepper said,

    August 27, 2009 @ 1:39 pm

    Crash blossom would be a good term for a symmetrical impact scar on a vehicle.

  34. typewritermender said,

    August 27, 2009 @ 2:32 pm

    Hey guys, this is my first comment–love the blog. Anyway, I've been a big fan gardenpath headlines since I discovered a site dedicated to them a few years back. I'm also a big baseball fan and find that there are numerous crash-blossomy treasures exhibited on MLB.COM (partly because the caliber of writing isn't all that impressive, and partly because of the expediency required for a timely story). A lot of them arise because of baseball slang that have entirely different meanings in common english. A good example is "scratched" – which of course means "removed from the lineup," but is particularly apt to form crash blossoms because a player is almost always "scratched" from the lineup for medical issues. See a fun one below:

    PETTITTE SCRATCHED WITH INFLAMED ELBOW

    Maybe this one's only funny to me because I'm part of a linguistic community that would use the word "tool" most often to mean "idiot," "poser," "asshole," the like…

    TOOLS DETERMINE WHO IS MLB’S ELITE

    I come across a bunch of these but forget to save most of them.

  35. Cameron said,

    August 27, 2009 @ 3:04 pm

    "Headless Corpse in Topless Bar" was a real NY Post headline from the late 70s or early 80s. But that's certainly not a Crash Blossom. It seems to me a proper Crash Blossom should come across like a mistake, whereas "Headless Corpse in Topless Bar" is a sign of genius at work.

  36. Tom Recht said,

    August 27, 2009 @ 4:08 pm

    A current headline on the Guardian website is "Woman found after 18 years missing". Oddly, the first time I looked at it I got the correct parsing ("A woman has been found after being missing for 18 years"); it was my second reading that went wrong ("The woman who was found after 18 years is missing"). Presumably what happened was that after the first reading, I now had a referent for the false NP "Woman found after 18 years" – so the headline primed its own misconstrual.

  37. Faldone said,

    August 27, 2009 @ 4:29 pm

    I have seen the archetypal "Violinist linked to JAL crash blossoms" hed quite a few times lately and frequently with a line break between crash and blossoms. Somehow that takes all the punch out of it.

  38. richard said,

    August 27, 2009 @ 8:16 pm

    My all-time favorite is REAGAN NOSE PIMPLE SKIN CANCER. The first time I read it, I put a colon after the first word, and a comma after the third. There was also a deliberate crash blossom in one of the local (Wisconsin) papers when then-governor Tommy Thompson was being very free with his veto power over legislation: "THOMPSON'S PEN IS A SWORD." The person setting the type left out the space between the second and third words, supposedly on a dare from a co-worker.

  39. Graeme said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 7:09 am

    Like Jennifer, I read 'crash blossoms' as a literal translation of an alternative Japanese metaphor for clouds' silver linings.

    A colon could reroute the garden-path.

    3 Missing after Wave Hits Maine: Located

  40. Andrew said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 8:52 am

    Some of the examples given here seem not to be 'garden path' cases, but just cases where a headline is misleading because of ambiguity of a word – 'risk', for instance, or 'appeal'. I think 'crash blossom' should be restricted to the kind of ambiguity that depends on syntax.

  41. Jane Hedley-Prole said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 11:01 am

    A CNN headline that puzzled me a while back was:

    Boonen burst seals world road gold

    I was wrong-footed by thinking that 'burst' was a verb. In fact it turned out to be a noun; the headline refers to a late sprint by a Belgian cyclist (Boonen) whereby he won a world road race championship.

    PS Good to learn from some of your postings that Fritz Spiegel's work is still being read. Besides being an excellent musician (he was a flautist with the Liverpool Philharmonic), musicologist and author of many humorous books on language (those interested in Liverpool dialect might like to check out the series 'Lern Yourself Scouse'), he was my landlord when I studied in Liverpool, and I remember him with affection for, amongst other things, taking me and my impecunious fellow tenants to see our first opera.

  42. Sparky said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 11:55 pm

    The Wall Street Journal's "Best of the Web" blog culls these, usually under the headline, "Someone Set Up Us the Bomb." Some recent examples:

    "Straw Blocks Mandelson Escape From Lords"
    "Sugar Elbows On to Heart Health List"
    "Tarrant Ex-Wife Parking Row Fine"

  43. Zwicky Arnold said,

    August 30, 2009 @ 11:28 am

    Danny Bloom has now submitted crash blossoms to the Urban Dictionary, and had it accepted. Make of that what you will.

  44. Danny Bloom said,

    August 30, 2009 @ 11:22 pm

    "Danny Bloom has now submitted crash blossoms to the Urban Dictionary [on behalf of nessie3, who came up with the phrase in the first place], and had it accepted. Make of that what you will." – AZ

    What it MEANS is that UrbanDick will accept anything submitted. Although I have had a few rejected, too. Acceptance rate in 93 percent.

    Now I'm looking into "open kimono" origins: see link

  45. brotzel said,

    October 18, 2009 @ 2:11 pm

    Important to distinguish headlines with poor syntax from those whose deliberate pregnant ambiguity is designed to puzzle for entertainment's sake / slyly ironise about the subject at hand. No one would completely guess the Sun WAGS example – the fun is in working out how the pun fits the story; the Ike and Tina example is obviously deliberate too.

  46. James D said,

    December 20, 2009 @ 9:18 pm

    Sorry to necrocomment, but the current edition of Private Eye (which I have now mislaid) is reporting some local paper or other as having run one of the most magnificent crash blossoms I have ever seen:

    HEADLESS CORPSE ACCUSED IN COURT

    It's so perfect that I'm now wondering whether it was deliberate…

  47. dan e bloom said,

    December 26, 2009 @ 12:21 am

    Mr Bloom submitted crash blossoms to the Urban Dictionary [on behalf of nessie3, who came up with the phrase in the first place], and Urban Dick accepted it, and now the New York Times Ben Schott's language blog has listed Nessie3's coinage as one of the top terms of 2009 in his year end columnblog, also known as a "blogumn" sometimes spelled as bloggiumn. Are you a bloggumnist too? So from its original inception at TestyCopyEditors to a slew (sp?) of blogs in the language cosmos to the New York Times, crash blossoms has really blossomed in just 6 months or so. Even though Philip Blanchard banned me from TestyCopyEditors for being too enthousiastic. Congrats Nessie3 in japan, where she works as an editor in Hokkaido.

  48. Ellen Janes said,

    December 26, 2009 @ 10:08 am

    submit sample hedlines top crashblossoms dot com

  49. Ellen Janes said,

    December 26, 2009 @ 10:09 am

    Link to crash blossoms dedicated website is here

  50. Mohrgaine LeFay said,

    January 5, 2010 @ 1:01 pm

    Check out the blog Probably Bad News: probablybadnews dot com

  51. dan e bloom said,

    January 16, 2010 @ 7:28 am

    first there were crash blossoms, yes, now there are crash possums: see my blog above or google it

  52. Clint Laing said,

    March 4, 2010 @ 2:48 pm

    How sad that the late and sorely needed Edwin Newman missed out on all this; from his book, "Strictly Speaking," I can still recall his chapter title, an actual headline: "A Fatal Slaying of the Very Worst Kind." Maybe not a true crash blossom, but destined for the Headline Hall of Fame that is sure to emerge from some not-for-profit foundation, any year now.

  53. Peter Cameron said,

    March 14, 2010 @ 1:15 pm

    I was pointed here by a colleague after I posted the following notice (which I saw yesterday in west London) on my blog:

    Danger: Unfenced water children must be accompanied.

    (Easier to require all water children to be fenced, surely?)

  54. Henri Rahikainen said,

    March 18, 2010 @ 5:09 am

    I just discovered this term on today’s posting about, well, actual examples of crash blossoms.

    I find the term ‘crash blossom’ very easy to adopt, as we have a Finnish term that can be used in the same manner that translates to English as 'language flower' (kielikukka). Our term though, is not constrained to any certain domain (ie. headlines) as the ‘blossom’ and can also refer to a simple slip of the tongue.

    I haven’t looked into other languages but I find the recurring allusions to gardens, plantlife, and more specifically flowers most curious, and wonder how languages outside of my sphere of interest handle referring to such “flowery” ambiguous instances of language.

  55. Henry said,

    March 21, 2010 @ 7:57 am

    Can we say that http://bloggingadeadhorse.tumblr.com/post/118207737/prison-unit-manager-on-drugs-charges documents such a phenomenon?

  56. Charles said,

    April 14, 2010 @ 11:19 pm

    Okay how about this one:
    http://www.vancouversun.com/news/Five+killed+daylight+shootout+Acapulco+beach/2907603/story.html

    "5 killed in daylight shootout by Acapulco beach"

    On my first read it really looked like the beach was responsible for shooting people.

  57. Peg said,

    May 4, 2010 @ 7:16 pm

    Fences seem to increase the fertility of the ground from which crash blossoms spring. In today's New York Times:

    "Obama Tries to Mend Fences with a Lunch"

    (I've heard of sandwiches tasting like glue, but really…)

    (Article is about a meeting with Elie Wiesel:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/05/world/05prexy.html)

  58. Daphne said,

    May 9, 2010 @ 6:47 pm

    Can anyone help me with these two off the BBC News website:

    'Wind farm road test trials start'

    and '

    'NY bomb plot hunt CCTV released'

    The BBc seems to have a thing for nouning things that needn't be nouned (like the easier to parse but super-ugly 'Japan PM scraps US base move plan').

  59. Benjamin Seaver said,

    August 12, 2010 @ 3:59 pm

    Another U.K.-based "plan" mishap: Saw this in the Guardian today:

    " Ground Zero mosque plans 'fuelling anti-Muslim protests across US' "

  60. Jonathan said,

    May 21, 2012 @ 4:10 am

    "row dogs dinosaur skeleton sale"

    The title has now changed, but that was the original at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-18141645

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