Sleeping jaguars run furiously

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Roger Lustig sends in this trending-on-facebook headline:

Police Find Jaguars Running Back Asleep Inside Car Sinking Into a Pond, Reports Say

Roger traces the first few steps down the garden path:

–Police find jaguars
–Police find jaguars running
–Police find jaguars running back (from where?)
–Police find jaguars running back asleep (talk about "second nature"!)

For me, "running back" is tightly enough bound as a compound word that I wouldn't have noticed the other possibilities without Roger's guidance. But it's special when the intended meaning is almost as weird as the crash blossom.

Update — for those who wonder what actually happened, see Joe Daraskevich, "Jaguars RB Denard Robinson found asleep at wheel of car in retention pond Sunday", 7/6/2016.


  1. richardelguru said,

    July 6, 2016 @ 4:08 am

    The real question:
    Was the pond inside the car, or the car inside the pond?

  2. Joe said,

    July 6, 2016 @ 8:12 am

    Doesn't your reference to Chomsky's example of a syntactically correct but nonsensical statement ("colorless green ideas sleep furiously") show that the statement has acquired more meaning than what Chomsky originally intended? Pragmatically, the statement initially functioned as an example – but doesn't it's usage become prevalent enough that it seems to actually mean something?

    [(myl) When famous nonsense becomes famously emblematic nonsense, it thereby ceases to be nonsense.

    Thus Fintan O'Toole, "Brexit and the politics of the fake orgasm", Irish Times 7/2/2016:

    When Trump says “I will build a wall and Mexico will pay for it” or Boris Johnson and Michael Gove say “We send the EU £350 million a week – let’s fund our NHS instead”, they are actually saying “Colourless green ideas sleep furiously.” Their claims have the form and grammar of traditional political promises, but they bear no relation to anything they actually intend to do.


  3. BlueLoom said,

    July 6, 2016 @ 8:14 am

    Good candidate for crash blossom/garden path of the year. Absolutely impossible to untangle unless you know US sports teams names and the names of the positions in American (and Canadian?) football.

  4. Ralph Hickok said,

    July 6, 2016 @ 8:23 am

    I saw that headline in the wild and, as a football fan, I had no trouble with it, but I also saw that it could be totally puzzling to a non-fan, who might well wonder where the Jaguars were running back to and how how they could run in their sleep.

  5. Francois Lang said,

    July 6, 2016 @ 8:23 am

    @BlueLoom: Now I get it. Finally. Thanks for the explanation!

  6. C said,

    July 6, 2016 @ 8:24 am

    Thanks BlueLoom. I couldn't fathom it out until I read your clues.

  7. Ellen K. said,

    July 6, 2016 @ 8:52 am

    Regular mixed case (instead of initial caps) would help here, since then "Jaguars" would be marked as a proper noun. Though that might leave folks not familiar with American Football wondering how cars got inside a car.

  8. Bartleby said,

    July 6, 2016 @ 9:32 am

    An apostrophe would've helped.

  9. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 6, 2016 @ 10:03 am

    That the underlying headline was all-initial-caps did prevent some helpful disambiguation, but it's a reasonable house style for headlines. Myl's decision to lowercase "jaguars" in the title of the post, on the other hand, may have been a bit of a thumb on the scales priming readers in a way that might impede the correct reading?

    I think I had trouble finding the correct reading in part because the canonical list of NFL teams deeply embedded into my personal lexicon is the list as it stood when I was a teenager (i.e. after the addition of Seahawks/Buccaneers but before any more recent alterations), so the football sense of "Jaguars" is simply not as readily available to my disambiguation capacities as the football sense of "Colts" or "Lions" would be.

    My football-related lexicon was getting stabilized (and thus resistant to subsequent change?) right around the time when "running back" had just overtaken halfback+fullback in combined hits in the google books corpus (which was also around the same time "wide receiver" overtook "split end" – not even football was stable amidst the lexical/cultural shifts of the 1970's), so I don't think I can plausibly say that bigram isn't adequately lexicalized for me — at least given appropriate contextual clues.

  10. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 6, 2016 @ 11:12 am

    An apostrophe I guess would have helped, but only in an alternative universe where the AmEng conventions for speaking and writing about the team affiliations of athletes were different. It's almost invariably e.g. "Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka," not "Yankees' pitcher Masahiro Tanaka."

  11. Gregory Kusnick said,

    July 6, 2016 @ 11:29 am

    J.W.: In what sense is it a reasonable house style, if it serves no useful purpose, and frequently acts as an impediment to clarity?

  12. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 6, 2016 @ 12:00 pm

    Well, it's a traditional style, so I'm gonna play the descriptivist card and say that any feature of the language as it has evolved is presumptively not-unreasonable or it wouldn't be there. But the number of instances in which it impedes clarity (i.e. where the difference between a capitalized and lowercased non-initial word would provide crucial disambiguation) strikes me as not likely to be that high in percentage terms. Most of our conventions for when non-sentence-initial words are and aren't capitalized seem pretty random (there's certainly a lot of cross-linguistic variation even between English and other European languages, not to mention English itself over time) and thus fairly low-information in their content, with capitalized/uncapitalized minimal pairs being more the exception than the rule.

    One advantage the convention might have is explicitly signalling "this is a headline or title or section heading and is thus subject to special syntactic rules, so don't expect it to be a 'complete sentence' or criticize it for being a 'sentence fragment.'" So, e.g., the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (which I have open on my desk) consistently use an initial-caps style for section and subsection headings, which are not expected to be complete sentences, and then use "regular" mixed-case style for the substance of the rules which *are* in complete sentences. Thus (opening to a random page) Rule 31(a)(4): "Questions Directed to an Organization. A public or private corporation, a partnership, an association, or a governmental agency may be deposed by written questions in accordance with Rule 30(b)(6)."

  13. Gregory Kusnick said,

    July 6, 2016 @ 12:22 pm

    Seems like a small advantage, since headlines, titles, and so on are generally well marked typographically.

    As for frequency, I'm guessing the potential for cap/uncap ambiguity arises considerably more frequently in sports headlines.

  14. Gregory Kusnick said,

    July 6, 2016 @ 12:53 pm

    Let me amend that. I'll concede that in an era of hot metal and manual typewriters, there may have been value to such a convention in the workflow of copywriters, editors, and typesetters. But its persistence into the printed product seems less motivated and can perhaps be regarded as a species of nerdview.

  15. Rebecca said,

    July 6, 2016 @ 2:08 pm

    I saw the headline on fb, too, and like Roger, went well down the garden path. I'm into football enough for "running back" to be a salient compound, but not enough for "Jaguars" to be a salient team name. The blurb I saw also mentioned Florida, and I think I was primed by lots of recent stories of disruptive wild life in Florida.

  16. Mr Punch said,

    July 6, 2016 @ 5:07 pm

    Would have been clearer with "Jags" in place of "Jaguars" – more headline-y too

  17. Mike said,

    July 6, 2016 @ 6:02 pm

    "Jaguars Quarterback" would have caused no trouble. Eventually the words will fuse into Runningback.

  18. Mike said,

    July 6, 2016 @ 6:05 pm

    On the other hand, "Police Find Jaguars Tight End Asleep" would have been fun.

  19. Stephen Hart said,

    July 6, 2016 @ 6:58 pm

    The icing on the cake is that Robinson was asleep in an Impala, so the headline could have read:

    Police Find Jaguars Running Back Asleep Inside Impala Sinking Into a Pond, Reports Say

    Or more concisely:
    Pigs Eye Jaguars Running Back Asleep In Impala Sinking In Pond

    One could go on and on.

  20. Stephen Hart said,

    July 6, 2016 @ 6:58 pm

    The icing on the cake is that Robinson was asleep in an Impala, so the headline could have read:

    Police Find Jaguars Running Back Asleep Inside Impala Sinking Into a Pond, Reports Say

    Or more concisely:
    Pigs Eye Jaguars Running Back Asleep In Impala Sinking In Pond

    One could go on and on.

  21. Martha said,

    July 6, 2016 @ 7:08 pm

    This post is how I learned "running back" is two words. Not a football fan.

  22. Roger Lustig said,

    July 6, 2016 @ 9:45 pm

    To me, the really distressing bit is at the end: "Reports say." If so, we need better reports.

  23. ryan said,

    July 7, 2016 @ 3:29 am

    Well, whatever lexical crimes were committed, the real scandal is after the jump – "authorities determined he was not impaired and should not face a DUI charge."

    Cause lots of people drive their cars into ponds and don't wake up for the impact when they're really, really drowsy. He and his girlfriend probably just had a long day volunteering for Habitat for Humanity, hammering and sawing. Maybe they were dehydrated too. And any of us might misunderstand an officer telling us our car was sinking in a pond and we needed to get out, if we were really tired, as Robinson says he was. It could easily take being told "your car is in a pond" 3 or 4 times before we started to wake up, look around and realize that there was no road, only water so high that the driver side door wouldn't open.

    Sorry to get this off-topic. To bring it back on, I surmise there's another deceptive usage here – "authorities" must be used locally as a synonym for "people who've placed large bets on the Jaguars 2016-17 season."

  24. Vulcan With a Mullet said,

    July 7, 2016 @ 1:08 pm

    Cops Find Jags Back Asleep in Pond-Sunk Impala

  25. ardj said,

    July 8, 2016 @ 1:43 pm

    @Roger Lustig: I wondered who this character Say doing the reporting was

  26. Steve Bacher said,

    July 9, 2016 @ 4:24 pm

    "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously" isn't as thoroughly devoid of meaning as it was when it was conceived. Some years ago, TIME Magazine ran an ecologically-focused series seeking the best "green ideas." There is even a NZ-based web site devoted thereto (

    – seb

  27. Daniel Roth said,

    July 15, 2016 @ 10:47 am "Chilling Video Shows Police Firing on Nice Attacker"

    Not to make light of a horrific situation, but reporters and readers alike should be extra careful when covering/reading "Nice".

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