Qaddafi wrestles giant bear?

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Several readers have sent me links to a recent headline: Anthony Shadid, "Qaddafi Forces Bear Down on Strategic Town as Rebels Flee", NYT 3/10/2011.

The obligatory screen shot is here.

As everyone observes, this is the mildest kind of crash blossom.  But Federico Escobar asks "Who would've guessed Qaddafi had hidden talents as a bear wrestler?" And Rick Rubenstein notes "I'm not sure exactly how you force a bear down, but I'm sure it make *me* flee."

This is not the first ursine crash blossom, and I'm sure it won't be the last:

Update — There are no bears in Jennifer Steinhauer, "Cuts to Head Start Show Challenge of Fiscal Restraint", NYT 3/10/2011. But David Walker writes "Cuts to Head? What? Who got cuts to their head? Then “Start Show” tripped me up, so I had to start over."

When you start with a language where most nouns can be verbed and vice versa — especially the shorter ones — and you add the constraints of headlinese, it's surprising that any headlines *aren't* crash blossoms.


  1. The Ridger said,

    March 11, 2011 @ 8:59 am

    I don't know. I think you have to try pretty hard to misread "Qaddafi forces bear down". The White House one, though – that one's very hard not to misread.

  2. Amy West said,

    March 11, 2011 @ 9:11 am

    I concur with Ridger: I read the first one as intended the first time and had to "look" for the crash blossom.

    The second one is a much more obvious crash blossom.

    This is going to be stating the obvious, but it's because of syntax. In the first one, I read "Qaddaffi forces" as a noun phrase and so expect a verb and so read "bear down" as a verb. But in the second, I expect a noun after "says" and so read "bears" as a noun and not a verb.

    Stating the obvious is my job. My work here is done.

  3. Pflaumbaum said,

    March 11, 2011 @ 9:32 am

    Unlike Ridger and Amy I did initially read forces as a verb.

    I think the reason is that 'Qaddafi forces' is not a natural NP for me, even in journalese – I'd expect a genitive. Likewise Bin Laden's insurgents and Hitler's stormtroopers are more natural than Bin Laden insurgents and Hitler stormtroopers.

    On the other hand, the post's title alerted me to the presence of a bear, so I may have been influenced by that into reading bear as a noun and thus forces as a verb.

  4. Rick Sprague said,

    March 11, 2011 @ 9:32 am

    MYL probably wouldn't want this comments thread to become an anecdotal list of how people initially parsed the headline. However, I find The Ridger's and Amy West's comments surprising. Even if you didn't read the title of the post (or weren't primed by it), it seems obvious to me that the first candidate parse of "Qaddafi" at the start of a sentence (or, in this case, headlinese phrase) is as the subject, not an attributive modifier, and that that further primes one to see "forces" as a verb and not the head noun in a NP. "Time flies" vs. "fruit flies".

  5. army1987 said,

    March 11, 2011 @ 9:39 am

    I got both the actual meaning and the, er…, ‘alternative’ meaning on the first read.

  6. Jon Lennox said,

    March 11, 2011 @ 9:40 am

    Bears don't have down. *Ducklings* have down.

  7. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    March 11, 2011 @ 9:46 am

    @Pflaumbaum: I wonder if it's (in part) because you're British? The American commenters all seem to have no problem with it, and conversely, British headlines are often incredibly opaque to me. You may have a different set of expectations because British headlines follow a different set of norms.

  8. Brett said,

    March 11, 2011 @ 9:49 am

    @Rick Sprague: If I saw that headline completely free of context, I might have tended to interpret it the way you suggest, reading "Qaddafi" as the subject and "forces" as a verb. However, over the last couple of weeks, I have been hearing and reading an awful lot about the different military "forces" in Libya. If I now see "forces" in a Libyan context, the noun meaning is certainly the first one that jumps to mind. Consequently, like some other readers, I had to reread the hed several times to get the crash blossom.

  9. Ellen K. said,

    March 11, 2011 @ 10:05 am

    Responding to Pflaumbaum's comment.

    I think there's a difference between "Qaddafi Forces" versus "Bin Laden insurgents" and "Hitler stormtroopers". Namely, Bin Laden has al-Qaeda, Hitler had the Nazis, and Qaddafi? Qaddafi Forces parallels "al-Qaeda insurgents" and "Nazi stormtroopers", to my way of thinking.

    That, plus that we are reading headlinese, is I guess why it's a "Qaddafi forces" is a natural noun phrase for some of us.

    Though I do see your point on why it isn't for you and others.

  10. DonBoy said,

    March 11, 2011 @ 10:09 am

    If you think of the White House as being about the kind of bears who think the stock market is on its way down, it's even plausible.

  11. phosphorious said,

    March 11, 2011 @ 12:54 pm

    I'm rooting for the bear.

  12. Dan T. said,

    March 11, 2011 @ 12:59 pm

    Stephen Colbert famously hates bears, so he might concur in blaming that species for whatever happens in the Senate and in Libya.

  13. Dick Margulis said,

    March 11, 2011 @ 2:56 pm

    I think the White House one probably resonates more with Chicagoans than with others, although DonBoy makes a good point too. I'm having trouble, though, making light of much of anything having to do with Qaddafi's violence against his own people. That headline is hard to misread, at least for me.

  14. Mr Fnortner said,

    March 11, 2011 @ 6:28 pm

    I am curious. Crash blossoms are great fun, indeed, but I suspect most skillful readers encounter, and quickly recover from, most crash blossoms in milliseconds (or we couldn't parse any sentence, so filled with doubt we would be). Later, as we recount our amusement and initial misdirection, I imagine that we embellish our struggle. Has the difficulty of correctly interpreting confusing headlines (or other matter) been studied?

    [(myl) There are certainly several techniques for studying the time course of garden-path phenomena. I've never heard of those techniques being specifically applied to headline processing, however.]

  15. Mark Mandel said,

    March 11, 2011 @ 9:14 pm

    The "White House" one is IMHO ungrammatical even by headline standards. The others have more than one grammatical parses, but this one drops an embedded-clause subject that is coreferent with the subject of the higher clause. (At least, that's what I think is going on here.) I don't believe could ever accept that.

  16. Mark Mandel said,

    March 11, 2011 @ 9:14 pm

    Bah, shoulda been "more than one grammatical parse". Bedtime for Bonzo.

  17. notrequired said,

    March 11, 2011 @ 10:25 pm

    Blows to Head Start Show Challenge of Sentence Make

  18. David Marjanović said,

    March 14, 2011 @ 3:18 pm

    Not being a native speaker, I get this effect all the time when reading English, and not just headlines.

  19. dirk alan said,

    March 14, 2011 @ 10:07 pm

    kaddafi s insane clown posse. needs a no fly zone . for the love of goddess help the rebels. past tents.

  20. Daniel Barkalow said,

    March 15, 2011 @ 12:02 am

    I don't think the current headline subject matter really prompts the noun reading of "forces". I'd be completely unsurprised to see a headline "Qaddaffi Forces Rebels Out Of Brega" or "Anti-Aircraft Fire Forces Jet Down Near Ajdabiya". The part that's common in current headlines is "Bear Down On", which is enough to trigger the reparse at that point for me.

  21. Vocabulinks - said,

    March 23, 2011 @ 1:38 pm

    […] Language Log […]

  22. Anne said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 10:02 am

    I'm not sure where to submit a crash blossom, so I'm adding to this thread…

    Here's the image:

    And in online text:

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