Crash Blossoms

Legendary headlines from years past (some of which verge on the
mythical) include “Giant Waves Down Queen Mary’s Funnel,” “MacArthur
Flies Back to Front” and “Eighth Army Push Bottles Up Germans.” The
Columbia Journalism Review even published two anthologies of ambiguous
headlinese in the 1980s, with the classic titles “Squad Helps Dog Bite
Victim” and “Red Tape Holds Up New Bridge.”

For years, there was
no good name for these double-take headlines. Last August, however, one
emerged in the Testy Copy Editors online discussion forum. Mike
O’Connell, an American editor based in Sapporo, Japan, spotted the
headline “Violinist Linked to JAL Crash Blossoms” and wondered, “What’s
a crash blossom?” (The article, from the newspaper Japan Today,
described the successful musical career of Diana Yukawa, whose father
died in a 1985 Japan Airlines plane crash.) Another participant in the
forum, Dan Bloom, suggested that “crash blossoms” could be used as a
label for such infelicitous headlines that encourage alternate
readings, and news of the neologism quickly spread.

After I
mentioned the coinage of “crash blossoms” on the linguistics blog
Language Log, having been alerted to it by the veteran Baltimore Sun
copy editor John E. McIntyre, new examples came flooding in. Linguists
love this sort of thing, because the perils of ambiguity can reveal the
limits of our ability to parse sentences correctly. Syntacticians often
refer to the garden-path phenomenon, wherein a reader is led down one
interpretive route before having to double back to the beginning of the
sentence to get on the right track. —Ben Zimmer, NY TImes Magazine