Major who?

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From Andrea Comiskey, a crash blossom on the National Weather Service's site: "Major to record flooding continues over portions of Mississippi River Valley".

The mistaken interpretation of major as a noun and record as a verb is promoted by the sequence "to record", in which record is overwhelmingly likely to be a verb. And "major to record flooding" still works in that interpretation. But the next word, "continues", forces the reader to backtrack. If the headline had been ""Major to record flooding over portions of Mississippi River Valley", the mistake could have lasted to the end, as it does with the classic examples like “Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim”.

"Major Flooding" is the highest category defined on the map shown below, higher than "moderate flooding" and "minor flooding":

That map doesn't have "record flooding" as a category, but needless to say, the USGS keeps the books on that, e.g. here:

For anyone who hasn't been following the story, it's serious, e.g. "Victims pick up pieces as flooding fears move south", CBS/AP 1/2/2016.

The multiple ambiguity of the English word major has been exploited on purpose many times, most notably by Joseph Heller in Catch-22.


  1. Jessie said,

    January 2, 2016 @ 10:59 am

    I guess it shows that I'm a meteorologist, because my wetware immediately defaulted to the intended technical meaning. Umm, thanks for explaining the ambiguity . . .

  2. Bartleby said,

    January 2, 2016 @ 2:09 pm

    Major Major Major Major.

  3. maidhc said,

    January 2, 2016 @ 4:54 pm

    If there were a degree program in Heller Studies, you could have a Major Major major.

  4. cameron said,

    January 2, 2016 @ 6:38 pm

    This reminds me of the old Goon show catchphrase: "winds light to variable".

  5. David Morris said,

    January 2, 2016 @ 7:14 pm

    According to the website 'approximately 9 people' in the world (all in the USA), have the surname Flooding. Maybe one of them is a senior officer in the army.

  6. Michael said,

    January 3, 2016 @ 4:49 am

    Planned ambiguity is not the only communication related issue in Heller's Catch 22: That great book is a compendium of communication pathologies!

  7. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 3, 2016 @ 10:33 am

    It reminds me of the time, during my student years, when someone was introduced to me as a French major, and I thoroughly confused him by saying, Enchanté, mon commandant!

  8. Yerushalmi said,

    January 3, 2016 @ 10:54 am

    Isn't the real problem here the lack of hyphenation? I'd write "Major-to-record flooding" (although even that is still ambiguous, now that I see it written out…)

  9. Mark said,

    January 3, 2016 @ 7:36 pm

    My reading was close to Jessie's, although it took a moment to parse it correctly. I never read "major" as an officer's rank; I understood as soon as I saw "flooding." I'm an atmospheric scientist, although not a meteorologist, but it was awareness of the recent flooding that cued me for the correct reading.

    It reminds me of when I was a newspaper reporter many years ago. While I was covering some (I have no memory of what it was) story I talked by phone several times to a man named Major Thompson. Every time I called and asked for him, I used his full name and said "Major" as if it were a rank. I couldn't stop myself. Based on some minimal research, it seems that Major as a given name had some popularity for a while a hundred or so years ago, but today is rarely used as a name.

  10. Rodger C said,

    January 4, 2016 @ 12:18 pm

    @Mark: This sort of thing was said to have perpetually annoyed Sargent Shriver.

  11. BZ said,

    January 4, 2016 @ 2:39 pm

    I don't think you can use hyphens like that since it's not one adjectival phrase modifying the noun, but a shortening of "Major [flooding] to record flooding", each adjective modifies the noun separately.

  12. Viseguy said,

    January 6, 2016 @ 11:45 pm

    In places where flooding hardly ever happens, "record" flooding could be minor.

    That said, "record to minor flooding" (including quotes) yields no results on Google.

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