Double crash blossom

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Jonathan Falk writes:

I rarely get an email where my first two interpretations of the subject line [in this case, "AYA Burns Supper at Mory's"] are wrong.  The first, obvious interpretation is that the Association of Yale Alumni for some reason was cooking the meal at Mory’s and they weren’t very good at it.  My second interpretation was that they had a charity supper supporting burn victims.  Neither seemed plausible, forcing me to actually read the email, which may have been what they had in mind all along.

What Jonathan learned in the body of the email was that it was about, well, a Burns Supper:


  1. Barrie England said,

    January 5, 2015 @ 2:32 pm

    As an Englishman, not even a Scot, I had no doubt about what was intended as soon as I read it.

  2. Gregory Kusnick said,

    January 5, 2015 @ 2:51 pm

    I was going to guess that it was a dinner in honor of someone named Aya Burns, who for some idiosyncratic reason spells her given name in all caps.

  3. Peter said,

    January 5, 2015 @ 3:25 pm

    @Barrie England: as another Brit, I was lost. I only know it as Burns Night; never heard of a Burns Supper.

  4. David Eddyshaw said,

    January 5, 2015 @ 3:30 pm

    Immediately clear to me, to the degree that I had to deliberately think of alternative interpretations, but then I grew up in Scotland.

    Terrible kitschy event, even if (like me) you positively like haggis. And I'm tired of explaining to the English that Scotland has produced quite a lot of good poets, not just the perfectly decent but sadly overpraised Burns.

    I will now change my name and retire from the intertubes forever, before Mel Gibson comes for me.

  5. January First-of-May said,

    January 5, 2015 @ 3:58 pm

    @Gregory Kusnick: I personally thought AYA Burns was some kind of a sub-branch of an organization with the acronym of AYA (e.g. a university with a campus in a place named Burns).
    Never heard of Burns Night or Burns Supper either, but then I've never been to the UK… or the US for that matter.

  6. J. W. Brewer said,

    January 5, 2015 @ 4:07 pm

    It's mildly interesting that "AYA" (I guess because it is the long-standing traditional initialism and its meaning is accordingly transparent to the intended audience) coexists with a webpage headed "Yale Alumni Association" rather than "Association of Yale Alumni."

  7. TonyK said,

    January 5, 2015 @ 4:43 pm

    No problem for this Englishman, either. In fact I parsed the Burns Supper without even noticing the ambiguity, so I started to search for the promised crash blossom in "Major Cities – New Haven".

    I seriously doubt that this was a deliberate ploy to get our attention, as Jonathan Falk implies. Just an everyday culture clash.

  8. Fernando Colina said,

    January 5, 2015 @ 5:36 pm

    Here are 5 words with 3 (at least) plausible interpretations. Is that near a record? What's the shortest morpheme string that can fairly be interpreted in 3 different ways? Is there a case where the number of interpretations exceeds the number of morphemes?


  9. Q. Q. Switcheroo said,

    January 5, 2015 @ 5:40 pm

    @Gregory Kusnick: Aya wouldn't be the first Burns to attend Yale:

  10. Eric P Smith said,

    January 5, 2015 @ 6:02 pm

    Oh Peter! "Burns Supper" is how Burns nights are standardly known. I got three email invitations to Burns Suppers today alone!

    (Sent from my PC in Scotland, of course)

  11. John Swindle said,

    January 5, 2015 @ 6:10 pm

    1. Ayah burned the supper. No, that can't be right.

    2. John A. Burns, before becoming governor of Hawaii and before the medical school was named for him, was a young Honolulu police officer when Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. He had already been spying on the local Japanese community and is credited with convincing the FBI not to send all Hawaii residents of Japanese ancestry to concentration camps during the war. But he didn't have a Yale connection.

    3. So more likely somebody named Burns was a generous Yale alumnus, and annual suppers remind alumni to get rich and donate like him or her.

  12. Ø said,

    January 5, 2015 @ 6:31 pm

    I was pretty sure they meant Burns Night (who ever heard of a Burns Supper?) but if I had come across this cold, without knowing it was suppoed to be a crash blossom, who knows?

  13. Eric P Smith said,

    January 5, 2015 @ 6:41 pm

    @Ø and others: I repeat, in Scotland, the home of Robert Burns, the term "Burns Supper" is the standard name. If you ask for "Burns Night" on Wikipedia, it redirects to "Burns Supper".

  14. Kivi Shapiro said,

    January 5, 2015 @ 9:31 pm

    AYA Burns Breakfast at Tiffany's

  15. Tom Parmenter said,

    January 5, 2015 @ 9:39 pm

    Menu, haggis and whisky.

  16. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 5, 2015 @ 9:54 pm

    The English Dialect Dictionary says "fair fa'" means "good luck to, well betide, blessings on (some one)", which is not quite the same as "nice to see" in the fine print of the e-mail.

    Got it on the second try. The first was "And what are they burning at the place where Louie dwells?"

  17. Jonathan said,

    January 5, 2015 @ 10:50 pm

    Wow. Internet famous for two minutes or so. Thanks, Mark.
    Fernando Colina: The famous "Time flies like an arrow" packs at least 8 different syntactic interpretations in five words. See;_fruit_flies_like_a_banana in the section discussing Analysis of the Basic Ambiguities

  18. Sandy Nicholson said,

    January 6, 2015 @ 5:06 am

    Just to add a little nuance to Eric’s comments, while I’d agree that a Burns supper is the event you might go to on 25 January here in Scotland (though it’s by no means compulsory!), ‘Burns night’ is often used to refer to that evening of the year (irrespective of whether you’re celebrating by attending a Burns supper).

    For what it’s worth, like other Scots here, I read the headline as intended. The collocation ‘Burns supper’ is so familiar that it takes some mental effort to pull it apart.

    It may also be relevant that I (and perhaps other Scots?) tend to use the word ‘supper’ rather rarely – mainly in ‘Burns supper’ and ‘Last supper’, I suspect. ‘Supper’ is also widely used in Scotland to refer to a snack before bedtime, but I have rarely used it in that sense personally.

  19. Alan Palmer said,

    January 6, 2015 @ 6:58 am

    As a Sassenach Englishman who didn't go to Yale the subject line would have been completely mystifying to me, although of course I'm not in the intended audience.

    As well as the 'Burns Supper/Burns Night' issue, I wouldn't be able to hazard a guess at what AYA might stand for. Acronym Finder shows the Association of Yale Alumni ranked fifth of the first 17 results, with a further 42 'other' results. I'd also have no idea who 'Mory' might be.

    [(myl) That would be the restaurant Mory's, as immortalized in the Whiffenpoof Song:

    To the tables down at Mory's,
    To the place where Louis dwells,
    To the dear old Temple Bar
    We love so well,

    Sing the Whiffenpoofs assembled
    With their glasses raised on high,
    And the magic of their singing casts its spell.


  20. Howard Oakley said,

    January 6, 2015 @ 11:39 am

    I have always wanted to turn up at a Burns Night Dinner armed with some Roehampton dressings*, but never yet had the guts to.

    *Roehampton dressings being a specialist dressing applied to burns, named after the location of the English hospital where they were devised.

  21. Seonachan said,

    January 6, 2015 @ 1:21 pm

    Now I finally get the joke in (Harvard alum) Tom Lehrer's song "Bright College Days":

    To the tables down at Mory's / Wherever that may be

  22. Jen said,

    January 6, 2015 @ 2:24 pm

    Sandy: What about a fish supper?

  23. Catanea said,

    January 6, 2015 @ 3:06 pm

    Well, I might have been mystified in mid July; but I've been re-reading Alexander McCall Smith, so Burns Supper required no demystifying; and "Mory's" magically expanded AYA. So I was not led down the garden path to the crash blossom. Almost sorry. What supper at Mory's might the AYA have burnt?

  24. Catanea said,

    January 6, 2015 @ 3:10 pm

    Hey! They sing "damned", don't they? I learnt this so long ago, that I guess it was censored for me and my childish friends as "doomed". A revelation.

  25. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    January 6, 2015 @ 5:07 pm

    I'm sure they sang 'doomed' when I was young (though the original source, Kipling's 'Gentleman Rankers', has 'damned').

  26. Sandy Nicholson said,

    January 6, 2015 @ 5:53 pm

    @Jen: I’d completely forgotten about ‘fish supper’ (and ‘sausage supper’, ‘white pudding supper’ etc.) – and probably other obvious examples too. For the benefit of non-Scots, an X supper (where X is drawn from a conventional and fairly limited set of foodstuffs) is a (usually) takeaway meal of X and chips – fries to Americans.

  27. John Lawler said,

    January 6, 2015 @ 8:09 pm

    As I learned at the only Burns Night I have ever attended, it's customary in many parishes to read a few poems of William Topaz McGonagall along with the poems of Burns.

    The theory is that the truly bad poetry (McGonagall) makes the truly great (Burns) stand out more, like sweet and sour. I don't know how that theory works out, but I do know that, after a suitable amount of whisky, McGonagall's poems are irresistible.

  28. Yuval said,

    January 7, 2015 @ 7:30 am

    The fact that headlines are not of a standard top-level constituent sure helps. In this case, there's no verb at all and the headline is just a single noun phrase.

  29. Wendy said,

    January 8, 2015 @ 10:40 pm

    @Seonachan: Thanks for mentioning that Tom Lehrer song–now I know what he's talking about too!

    "We will sleep through all the classes, and cheat on the exams, and we'll pass, and be forgotten with the rest. . . Hearts full of youth, Hearts full of truth, Six parts gin to one part vermouth."

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