Best newspaper headlines of 1999

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 thereís 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 "Violinist linked to JAL crash blossoms."

Whoever crafted that nugget of nonsense was trying to say that the musicianís 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: "McDonaldís fries the holy grail for potato farmers". As Stan Carey pointed out, one punctuation mark would have made the meaning clear: "McDonaldís 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 McDonaldís have against the holy grail, when McDonaldís found the sacred chalice, and why its mysteries are better plumbed when fried. Thatís 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 Nationís 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 ("Childís 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").

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 isnít time for more reflection and revision. With brutal deadlines and space restrictions that make Twitter seem commodious, itís no wonder crash blossoms blossom again and again.

Itís 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 itís 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.

Mark Peters
(V.Good on October 17, 2009).

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