A bouquet of crash blossoms

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Well, two, anyway. From reader AH, who wrote "Even though I've been following the (deeply disturbing) story, it took me at least three tries before I parsed the headline correctly":

Amount cheerleader who refused to cheer rapist required to pay reduced

And from reader DM:

Snakes in underwear smuggler fined $400

Obligatory screenshots:

Note that this headline exhibits a center-embedded structure, explaining why AH had so much trouble with it:

As for the snake smuggler, Reuters let us off easy, because he was not just a "snakes in underwear smuggler", he was a "snakes and tortoises in underwear smuggler":

I guess he could accurately have been called a "reptiles in underwear smuggler". But any way you describe the unfortunate hatchlings, an attempt to make a noun compound out of a smuggler who hid them in his underwear is going to turn out badly.

This one is especially hard because the prepositional phrase "in underwear" is not (it seems to me) a modifier of the initial noun snakes — as it would be in plausible and genuine noun compounds like "time of day clock" or "ants in the pants game". Rather, "in underwear" wants to be a locative modifier of the agentivized verb smuggle. As a result, "snakes in underwear" is not really a constituent, since the corresponding verb phrase would be something like

or maybe

rather than

And independent of the locative modifier, the plural in "snakes smuggler" is at least a bit odd, though plural left-hand elements in compound nouns are not always bad.

Still, some ingenious reader will probably find a familiar Bible quotation containing an agentive-headed compound noun with the structure that I've rejected…


  1. un malpaso said,

    September 16, 2011 @ 8:51 am

    I think # 1 was actually one of the quicker ones for me to make sense of, simply because it's so skewed to begin with! Once I saw "amount" followed by a noun out of left field, my eye immediately jumped forward through the sentence to search for "amount's" partner :)

    The second one is more problematic because I think it needs some hyphens. Small chance of that happening in Headlinese, though.

  2. Mark Mandel said,

    September 16, 2011 @ 9:06 am

    And since the first item was from a blog, not a journalistic entity, we don't come down *quite* so hard on
    — "plead" (past tense, rhyme with "lead" [Pb] leading to eye-rhyme)
    — objective "she and her parents"

  3. Dierk said,

    September 16, 2011 @ 9:47 am

    I wonder why, especially in these two cases, HL writers do it. Is it their goal to get a mention on LL? It isn't too hard to rewrite both of these HL to make it easy on the reader

    Amount to be paid by cheerleader who did not cheer rapist reduced

    This is even shorter than the original!

    Snakes-in-underwear smuggler fined $400

    Not quite so neat but I did not want to stray too far from the original wording.

  4. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    September 16, 2011 @ 9:54 am

    Totally OT, and excuse my ignorance: Mark, what software do you use to produce the neat trees?

  5. Ellen K. said,

    September 16, 2011 @ 10:20 am

    The first one I had no trouble with when I saw it quoted, but, even after reading it, it comes across as a crass blossom in the picture showing it in context. The line break makes it harder to parse, because "refused to cheer rapist" is broken into two lines between "cheer" and "rapist". Conversely, the smaller text of the headline when quoted makes it easier to see and take in the whole thing at once rather than reading linearly.

    The second one, reading it quoted, though I can't claim to have understood it on first read, it wasn't a crash blossom. In the screen print, with the larger text, I find myself reading it as two disconnected phrases, "snakes in underwear", "smuggler fined $400".

  6. David L Rattigan said,

    September 16, 2011 @ 10:44 am

    The second one almost immediately made sense to me, although it's a poor and potentially confusing headline. The first one totally fried my brain.

  7. Jim said,

    September 16, 2011 @ 10:51 am

    I'm quite familiar with the first case (and can link to the account set up to help her pay for the ridiculous legal fees, although that's likely not appropriate here) and immediately read the headline for what it was. Stepping back, though, I can see how it would be very misleading for people not familiar with the case.

  8. John said,

    September 16, 2011 @ 10:53 am

    @un malpaso is right: hyphens would have completely salvaged the second one.

  9. Craig Russell said,

    September 16, 2011 @ 10:53 am

    For the first headline, the problem is that "amount required to pay" is an unnecessarily clunky phrase when we have nouns that mean the same thing. What about this:

    Penalty (fine?) reduced for cheerleader who refused to cheer rapist

    As for the other one, forget Snakes In Underwear Smuggler; I know an Underwear Reptile Smuggler when I see one!

  10. Nick said,

    September 16, 2011 @ 11:20 am

    @Jarek: Looks like he's using this site: http://www.ironcreek.net/phpsyntaxtree/

  11. Mr Fnortner said,

    September 16, 2011 @ 11:38 am

    Could have been worse. Could have been Reptile Underwear Smuggler Fined $400.

  12. Ginger Yellow said,

    September 16, 2011 @ 11:45 am

    "Underwear snakes smuggler fined $400" reads a bit better, but the headline writer might have been worried about misinterpretation of "underwear snake".

  13. Janice Byer said,

    September 16, 2011 @ 2:09 pm

    The first headline – whoa! I could only guess that some paid pro-ball cheerleader, who'd earlier been fined by team management for violating his contract, had had his fine reduced, following his sentencing for rape, management having agreed with his attorneys that the less blood it tried to get from an incarcerated turnip (short of suspending the fine entirely, which the public could mistake for sympathy) the less bad publicity by association.

    I know, I know, but at least I could make that up. The truth I couldn't.

  14. Glenn Bingham said,

    September 16, 2011 @ 4:07 pm

    After working very hard to decipher the first one, I realized it meant that the rapist had required a payment of the cheerleader, who just wouldn't cheer for anything, and the rapist then lowered the payment. After reaching that conclusion, I realized I had stopped off on the wrong planet.

    [The amount [that the rapist required the cheerleader [who refused to cheer] to pay]] was reduced.

  15. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 16, 2011 @ 4:34 pm

    On the subject of the number of reptiles, I have the following pattern if there's more than one snake:

    snakes-in-underwear smuggler
    *snake-in-underwear smuggler

    *snakes smuggler
    snake smuggler

    Is that a general patter

  16. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 16, 2011 @ 4:34 pm


  17. Nathan Myers said,

    September 16, 2011 @ 5:17 pm

    There's some likelihood of turtles being declared not really reptiles at all, and being given their own class. So, instead of the fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals we were drilled with in school, we would have fish, amphibians, turtles, reptiles, and mammals, with birds swallowed up, as it were, by the reptiles. "Reptiles in underwear smuggler fined" doesn't cut the mustard.

    So, we might have to satisfied with the longer "Featherless sauropsid in underwear smuggler fined", but I find it more personally gratifying.

  18. Glenn Bingham said,

    September 16, 2011 @ 5:19 pm

    @Jerry Friedman

    I agree with your patter
    Can we call the snakes-in-underwear smuggler an underwear smuggler as well? It would contrast with a pocket smuggler, for instance, who stuffed toads in his pockets.

  19. Chris Barts said,

    September 17, 2011 @ 3:18 am

    @Pullum: The idea that some opinions are not even worthy of discussion, regardless of who speaks them, is very counter to the entire religious mindset, where some opinions are literally sacred and all opinions from some chosen people (rabbis, pastors, etc.) are worthwhile by definition. Add to that the 'close reading' Abrahamic faiths must do to their texts in order to 'interpret' them to be suitable for modern times and you have a whole bushel of barriers between the strictly religious and higher education.

  20. Ellen K. said,

    September 17, 2011 @ 8:38 am

    @Chris Barts: What are you responding to?

  21. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    September 17, 2011 @ 9:28 am

    @ Nick: Thanks!

  22. bloix said,

    September 18, 2011 @ 2:15 pm

    From today's New York Times:
    Handshakes, Not Hugs, As Rivera Ties Saves Mark.

  23. Janice Byer said,

    September 18, 2011 @ 3:08 pm

    bloix, wow, though I'm Red Sox fan, I couldn't even guess at the meaning of your crash blossom, not even after reading the article, hee. A second close reading was the charm.


  24. Ben said,

    September 19, 2011 @ 2:36 pm

    I like to read the snakes in underwear one as a kind of exclamation. As in

    Snakes in underwear! Smuggler find $400.

    I think "Snakes in underwear!" beats "Holy cow!" any day.

  25. Jonathon said,

    September 20, 2011 @ 12:13 am

    Perhaps because I just saw on ESPN where he tonight broke the record he tied on Sunday, but I had no problem with the Mariano Rivera headline bloix mentions. On the other hand, you certainly can add me to the list of those who were befuddled by the cheerleader headline despite a passing familiarity with the story…

    As for the snakes and other-beasts-which-may-or-may-not-be-related, can we all just be thankful they're no longer on an airplane?

  26. Andy said,

    September 20, 2011 @ 9:51 am

    Why are snakes being fined for being in an underwear smuggler?

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