Last month a story appeared on the Japan Today website with the headline: “Violinist linked to JAL crash blossoms”:
Since the word order effortlessly leads readers up the garden path, it is not immediately apparent that the main thrust of the headline is that a violinist blossoms, or perhaps that a violinist’s career blossoms. This violinist is “linked to JAL crash” by personal tragedy: her father died in a Japan Airlines (JAL) crash. The phrase “linked to JAL crash” is an adjectival clause with an elliptical “who is”:
[The] violinist [who is] linked to [the] JAL crash blossoms
The story has since disappeared but the headline remains. When it first appeared it was picked up by users of the Testy Copy Editors forum, who quickly adopted “crash blossoms” as a new generic term for headlines that miscue readers. Although the name is new, the phenomenon has long been characteristic of headlines, as John E. McIntyre has pointed out.
New examples emerge constantly. Yesterday, Language Log brought my attention to a glorious new crash blossom in an Associated Press headline: “McDonald’s fries the holy grail for potato farmers”. My immediate reaction was to burst out laughing. The images evoked were as silly as they were sacrilegious – or as Homer Simpson might put it, sacrilicious. Mmm… deep-fried holy grail… Then I was baffled by how such an obviously ambiguous line could have slipped by an editor (or a series of them).
To see just how easily the headline might have been steered into good sense, I recommend Literal-Minded’s analysis of the ambiguity (and his literal-minded image of the grail-frying). Happily, I have yet to be inured to such transgressions. Crash blossoms retain the endless potential to surprise and delight. They are the journalistic jokes that keep giving, and the AP’s bizarre arrangement of McDonald’s, the holy grail and potato farmers was a humdinger lacking only a punchline.
The original headline has since been changed to “Potato farmer holy grail: McDonald’s french fries”, but there was no need to re-order the sentence: a colon after fries would have sufficed to eliminate the ambiguity, if not the outlandish abstraction:
McDonald’s fries: the holy grail for potato farmers
This simple insertion would be all the more appropriate today, since it is National Punctuation Day in America. Changing the headline leaves far less room for amusement, of course, but luckily the original phrasing has been repeated on many other news websites.
The grotesque aesthetic has long been evident in art, and the term “crash blossoms” appeals to me because it poetically captures the simultaneous horror and beauty of mangled syntax. This poetic aspect is reflected in the title of Chris Waigl’s blog post about it. For further fun with foul phrasing, headsup: the blog routinely analyses headline language, and there are more crash blossoms mentioned and dissected at Language Log. I have also written about a couple of them here on Sentence first, and am delighted to finally know what to call them. It can only increase my contrary appreciation of them.
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Update: The term “crash blossom” continues to spread. Since writing this post I have seen several high-profile articles discussing the phenomenon and its new name, including pieces in GOOD magazine and on the NPR and NYT websites. There is also an eponymous blog dedicated to collecting crash blossoms, but it isn’t being updated very often, at least at the time of writing.