Linguists give a name to an old headline hazard.
If brevity is the soul of wit, it is also the trapdoor of ridiculousness-at least in the world of headlines, which have long been prone to unintentional comedy along the lines of "Woman Better after Being Thrown from High-rise" and "Scientists Are at Loss Due to Brain-eating Amoeba."
Now there's a name for the phenomenon of ambiguously or bizarrely worded headlines: "crash blossoms," as suggested by a poster at the Testy Copy Editors site in response to the headline
Whoever crafted that nugget of nonsense was trying to say that the musician's career flourished after a plane crash, but the odd syntax and unintentional coinage of "crash blossoms" flummoxed readers. The example quickly mutated into a term, which was soon picked up by John McIntyre, the Language Loggers, and beyond.
A near-perfect example was shared by Laurence Horn (via Steve Anderson) on the American Dialect Society listserv recently: "McDonald's fries the holy grail for potato farmers". As Stan Carey pointed out, one punctuation mark would have made the meaning clear: "McDonald's fries: the holy grail for potato farmers." But if you read the headline as is and in the most direct way, you might wonder what potato farmers and McDonald's have against the holy grail, when McDonald's found the sacred chalice, and why its mysteries are better plumbed when fried. That's the kind of humorous mental journey a good crash blossom can inspire.
The Columbia Journalism Review has been on the crash-blossom case a long time, most notably publishing the book Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim and Other Flubs from the Nation's Press (compiled by Gloria Cooper in 1980). This collection has many a howler, including grisly humor ("Lawmen from Mexico Barbecue Guests," "Lucky Man Sees Pals Die"), physical impossibilities ("Genetic Engineering Splits Scientists," "Milk Drinkers Turn to Powder"), logical absurdities ("War Dims Hopes for Peace"), inadvertent racism ("Greeks Fine Hookers"), unknowing sleaziness ("Prostitutes Appeal to Pope," "Pastor Aghast at First Lady Sex Position"), ew-provoking nastiness ("Child's Stool Great for Use in Garden"), and innovative adventures in law enforcement ("Juvenile Court to Try Shooting Defendant," "Drunk Gets Nine Months in Violin Case").
The word "headline" itself has a far less colorful history, but it does have some highlights, as collected by the Oxford English Dictionary. In the early 1600s, it meant "One of the ropes that make a sail fast to the yard," but by later in that decade "headline" was used in a way similar to its current meaning, though in reference to letter-writing. It wasn't until the 20th century that "hitting (or making) the headlines" came into vogue, and since 1927, the crash blossom-prone style of headlines has informed the word "headlinese," meaning "The elliptical style of language characteristic of the headlines, esp. in popular newspapers." Here's the first known use: "In the headlines of general newspapers you see time after time such words as ‘Probe', ‘Quiz', ‘Tilt', ‘Pact', etc. In newspaper offices such language is referred to as ‘Headlinese'. We banned it from the headlines of The [United States] Daily." A 1966 quote highlights the brevity that often leads to crash blossoms and other problems: "In headlinese you don't marry, you wed... You don't advance arguments against, you score."
Crash blossoms are a variation of "garden path sentences," a type of sentence that leads the reader into grammatical or logical sinkholes that were not intended. In the 2001 academic paper "Misinterpretations of Garden-Path Sentences: Implications for Models of Sentence Processing and Reanalysis," Fernanda Ferreira, Kiel Christianson, and Andrew Hollingworth wrote that their research challenged "...the fundamental assumption in psycholinguistics that comprehension is based on the creation of full, accurate, and detailed representations. It appears, instead, that people work on sentences until they reach a point where it subjectively makes sense to them and then processing may cease." In other words, if a headline sounds good and a deadline is looming, the editor may not ponder every possible meaning; therefore, "processing may cease" because there just isn't time for more reflection and revision. With brutal deadlines and space restrictions that make Twitter seem commodious, it's no wonder crash blossoms blossom again and again.
It's a bit early to say if "crash blossom" will truly catch on the way "eggcorn," "snowclone," and "Cupertino" have in the word-nerd world, but so far its future looks bright. Headlines breed like rabbits, and even though the Internet makes it easier to fix them, there are hordes of nitpickers and humorists ready to capture a goof before it's changed. Plus "crash blossom" itself is a juicy, vivid term-even though, as Ben Zimmer has pointed out, a Crash Test Dummies/Gin Blossoms cover band really missed the boat on this one.
Photo illustration by Atley Kasky