Saturday, August 28, 2010

Crash blossoms

Recently the term "crash blossom" has come into use to mean a news headline so clipped and ambiguous that it becomes nearly impossible to get the correct reading the first time around. The term comes from the headline "Violinist Linked to JAL Crash Blossoms", which on first glance might garner the interpretation that some violin-playing individual has something to do with something called "crash blossoms" owned or manufactured by some company JAL. In actuality the store is about a plane crash victim blossoming into a superb musician. You can check out all sorts of other examples at and Language Log (e.g., here). The reason behind this is that as we read, we construct a possible syntactic structure in our head, and when you have long strings of words where each one can be either a noun or a verb, you runs into problems. For instance, in "crash blossoms", "crash" can be a noun or a verb; "blossoms" can likewise be a plural noun or a 3rd person singular verb form.

I came across a gem the other day: "Stabbings suspect an enigma". This isn't a crash blossom that's genuinely ambiguous if you semantically interpret every word as you go, but apparently I was reading a little too fast for myself when I looked over this, because all I really saw was "N-pl V.3rd NP", which would get interpreted as some stabbings suspecting the existence of an enigma. Obviously that's not the right interpretation. Really what you get is two NPs with an omitted copula. This is not the type of thing that would be ambiguous even for a second in spoken language, since the noun and verb forms of "suspect" have differing stress. But then this type of headline isn't the kind of thing that would be spoken at all, which is why we get some great garden path sentences from terse copy editors.

1 comment:

SuomiChris said...

I am so happy to have a name for this, because I keep telling people how blogs should have titles that don't make you glare at them when they show up in your RSS reader...