Crash blossoms up the garden path

Last month a story appeared on the Japan Today website with the headline: ‘Violinist linked to JAL crash blossoms’:

Stan Carey - crash blossoms - Violinist linked to JAL crash blossoms

Since the word order effortlessly leads readers up the garden path, it’s not immediately apparent that the main thrust of the headline is that a violinist blossoms, or 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’ or ‘that 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 AP 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).

Stan Carey - crash blossoms - McDonald's Fries the Holy Grail for Potato Farmers

To see just how easily the headline might have been steered into good sense, I recommend Literal-Minded’s analysis of the ambiguity. Happily, I’ve 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 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 routinely analyses headline language, and there are more crash blossoms mentioned and dissected at Language Log. I’ve also written about a few 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.

* * * * *

Update: The term crash blossom continues to spread. Since writing this post I’ve 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’s also an eponymous blog dedicated to collecting crash blossoms, but it isn’t being updated very often.

14 Responses to Crash blossoms up the garden path

  1. Claudia says:

    This is an amusing post, links et al. Considering the publicity “crash blossoms” receive everywhere, I might be tempted, as editor, to produce some intentionally.

    A National Punctuation Day? You’re not kidding? How do we celebrate? By wishing good health to the “apostrofly”?

  2. Stan says:

    Claudia: I’m glad you enjoyed it, and I think I might be similarly tempted!

    National Punctuation Day is an actual event, at least for some folk. I can’t get too excited about it, because every day is a punctuation day to a writer and editor. What’s more, the aforelinked Americocentric website disseminates prescriptivist rules rather than offering even-handed advice based on historical research and modern usage.

  3. Crash blossoms: what a beautiful idea! And I got through the whole of yesterday without realising? it! was, National: Punctuation; Day…

  4. Stan says:

    I thought you would like “crash blossoms”, Doubtful!

    NPD is very much an American event, and even in the U.S. its profile seems modest at best. Also, the website’s somewhat presumptuous suggestions for NPD activities seem to be an invitation to violence.

  5. Good God! The NPD don’t mess about. I love the following instructions:
    “Take a leisurely stroll, paying close attention to store signs with incorrectly punctuated words. Stop in those stores to correct the owners.” Strangely, they left out: “Endure tirade of ungrammatical abuse from owners. Point out improperly constructed sentences and poor use of grammar. Receive several punches in jaw. Leave scene in ambulance. Point out incorrect punctuation in ambulance. Receive several more punches in jaw. Arrive in hospital in barely conscious state.” And so forth…

  6. Stan says:

    Doubtful: Funny! It’s difficult to assess how serious their suggestions are. The longer I spend wondering, the more unnerved I become. (The persistent ® symbol doesn’t help matters.)

  7. dan e bloom says:

    Nessie3: You made the New York Times!

    See, Mr Bloom submitted crash blossoms to the Urban Dictionary [on behalf of nessie3, who came up with the phrase in the first place], and Urban Dick accepted it, and now the New York Times Ben Schott’s language blog has listed Nessie3’s coinage as one of the top terms of 2009 in his year end columnblog, So from its original inception at TestyCopyEditors to a slew (sp?) of blogs in the language cosmos to the New York Times, crash blossoms has really blossomed in just 6 months or so.Congrats Nessie3 in japan, where he works as an editor in Sapporo. What do I know? Wakawanaii!.

  8. […] the legend of the knocking leg end The dubious award for crash blossom of the week (last week) goes to this disembodied doozy from the Dayton Daily News: “Man shot in […]

  9. substuff says:

    Why won’t McDonald’s ever fry the Holy Grail for me? That’s what I want to know. Filet o’ Fish they have no problem with, but ask for the Holy Grail and they come over all can’t-do.

  10. Stan says:

    Substuff: These are the questions we should all be asking. Or we’ll wake up one day and it won’t just be McDonalds – it’ll be every restaurant throughout the world, refusing us our god-given right to have our holy relics fried.

  11. Cinthya says:

    Crash blossoms: now that’s one word I’ve been in need of for a long time! :)

  12. […] This led me to a lovely post on Stan Carey’s Sentence First blog, on Crash blossoms. […]

  13. […] In editorial and linguistic circles there’s a special name for garden-path constructions in headlines: crash blossoms. The term comes from the 2009 example ‘Violinist linked to JAL crash blossoms’. […]

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