Crash blossoms

It was the headline that launched a thousand linguistics blog posts: “Violinist Linked to JAL Crash Blossoms.”

In 2009, a copy editor spotted this headline in Japan Today. Then he logged on to an internet language forum to ponder the question: “What’s a crash blossom?”

The rest is linguistics history. What had been a nonsensical pairing of two words became a term referring to just such nonsense. Today, crash blossom means any headline that invites a misreading — especially a ridiculous one.

For example, the Japan Today headline didn’t mean that a violinist is linked to mysterious things called crash blossoms. It meant that a violinist who is linked to a crash is blossoming in her career.

How do we know that? Certainly not from the grammar.

As written, the headline has two meanings — one logical, the other nonsensical. We need logic to tell us which of the two valid interpretations is more likely.

Headline writing, which crams big ideas into very tight spaces, is uniquely vulnerable to such misunderstandings. Lots of well-known examples go back more than a century.

“British Left Waffles on Falklands.”

“Giant Waves Down Queen Mary’s Funnel.”

“McDonald’s Fries the Holy Grail for Potato Farmers.”

“MacArthur Flies Back to Front.”

“Eighth Army Push Bottles Up Germans.”

“Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim.”

Here's a closer look at crash blossoms in my recent column.