Loco motive

“Sound Transit train hits teenage girl, survives” was the headline to an Associated Press story that did the rounds recently. You might well wonder at it. Trains, after all, are not usually considered to be in any danger after they hit teenage girls. It is the person who was hit that we worry about.

Many websites and news agencies, including MSNBC‘s newsvine.com (“Get Smarter Here”) and the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Seattle Times, reprinted the headline without seeming to notice the bizarre parallel world it conjured up.

How did so many people read, edit and arrange this and fail to notice its absurdity? A few outlets, to their credit, changed the headline (“Girl hit by Sound Transit train, survives”; “Teenage girl survives being hit by Sound Transit train”; “King County: Teen girl survives after being hit by Sound Transit train”):

KXLY.com added the relative pronoun who. This was a simple and effective strategy but it made the headlinese seem uncharacteristically like coherent prose:

Browsing the news websites that reported the event, I saw all sorts of variations on the theme, but a remarkable number retained the silly original. Accidental anthropomorphism for the win!

Language Log, meanwhile, has been hosting an interesting discussion on precisely what constitutes a crash blossom, and I’ve written about a few more of them here.

[Hat tip to Michael Quinion.]

11 Responses to Loco motive

  1. ALiCe__M says:

    Pardon my lack of vocabulary, but what I find most striking in this post is the phrase “crash blossom”. I had no idea what it meant when I first saw it on twitter. Now I’ve read the post, I still wonder : is it a “crashblossom” because the victim was a teenage girl, almost stopped in her “blossom” ? does it mean that an error resulted in an absurd title, and makes the mind “blossom” with ideas as to what the writer meant? Is it about a mistake once made and kept as an example (like our “coquille”)? I wonder.

  2. Stan says:

    Thanks for your comment, Alice. I should have explained briefly what crash blossoms are; I forget that the term is still new, and of limited familiarity to most readers.

    It originated in a bizarre headline (“Violinist linked to JAL crash blossoms”), so some copy editors adopted the term crash blossoms to describe ambiguous headlines that can easily lead readers astray. Here‘s where it all began, and here‘s my introduction to the phenomenon.

  3. wisewebwoman says:

    When I read of your “crash blossoms” Stan, I am always reminded of “Jumping the Shark”:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jumping_the_shark

    which has its own aficionados (including yours truly).

    That is when a TV series crashes and burns on ridiculous plot twists when it runs out of material or its course.

    XO
    WWW

  4. Fran says:

    How did they ever think that comma was going to be the right, choice?

  5. Stan says:

    WWW: When I see a headline like “Greece fears batter markets again”, or “Bethany Lott killed while being proposed to by a lightning strike in Knoxville”, I wonder if headline-writing has jumped the shark. If it has, may it keep jumping.

    Fran: That style of comma placement seems especially popular in U.S. headlines. It has its advantages – entertainment chief among them – but there are times I side with the late William Sa,fire: “This, is an unsettling trend.”

  6. ALiCe__M says:

    Thank you for your answer ! I still don’t get “linked to JAL” ? but I understand the weird expression comes from a previous error that has been kept as an example of morphosyntaxic weirdness. Same for “coquille” in French. THe word “coquille” was once written in the press without the “q”, which meant… well quite an embarrassing word in the national press ! since then we refer to a “coquille” to mean what you call a typo.

  7. Stan says:

    Alice: Rather than “linked to JAL”, think of it as “linked to JAL crash”. The background is that a violinist’s relative died in a Japan Airlines (JAL) crash. This is the link in “linked to”. Later, she blossomed, figuratively — or her career did.

    The main point of the headline is “Violinist blossoms”; “linked to JAL crash” is an adjectival clause inserted between the main subject and verb. “Violinist [linked to JAL crash] blossoms” isn’t a mistake, but it’s a remarkably awkward way of concisely presenting a few pieces of information, and the striking juxtaposition “crash blossoms” was memorable enough to become prototypical of headlines with the potential to mislead.

    Thanks for the French example! How embarrassing for the newspaper — not only to make the mistake, but to have it become emblematic of all such mistakes. Semantically it’s similar to the English phrases balls-up and cock-up, though these aren’t specifically typo- or even language-related.

  8. Hmm now that made a lot of sense! If find US news headlines rahter irritating

  9. Stan says:

    Jams: Reading The Onion helps me find them entertaining, funny.

  10. […] Submitted by Stan Carey who provides a commentary. […]

  11. […] on a transportation vehicle: a couple of years ago I wrote about the strange implications of “Sound Transit train hits teenage girl, […]

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