Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Crash Blossoms Keep on Blossoming

My latest On Language column in the New York Times Magazine is all about "crash blossoms," a new term for a phenomenon that people have been noting for decades: newspaper headlines that can be read in unintended ways (like "British Left Waffles on Falklands"). I've already received a plethora of emails from readers who wanted to share crash blossoms that they've collected over the years.

Exquisitely ambiguous headlines have been mined for humor for quite a while, by outlets as far-ranging as the New Yorker, Punch magazine, the Columbia Journalism Review and Jay Leno's (once and future) Tonight Show. But it took the participants of the Testy Copy Editors discussion forum to come up with the perfect label for such headlines: "crash blossoms," which in turn derives from a difficult-to-parse headline ("Violinist Linked to JAL Crash Blossoms," appearing in Japan Today).

Here's a sampling of classic crash blossoms I've received in response to my column:

Consider the old New York Daily News front page headline of the 1940s announcing the demise of the head of the US Supreme Court named Stone. It read:
CHIEF JUSTICE
STONE DEAD
—Jon Randal

Way back in the day when AFL meant coal miners, John L. Lewis decided not to pursue a lawsuit. Headline:
LEWIS DROPS UNION SUIT
—Chuck Mackey

From the Albany Times Union, about 20 years ago, the following headline panicked me:
JAPAN RECALLS WORLD WAR II SURRENDER
—Alice Rubin

A business short on a bad month for Intel:
CHIP MAKER ORDERS DIP
—Peter Putrimas

And here are two crash blossoms of more recent vintage (both rather morbid!):

From the Ledger of Lakeland, Fla.:
Lotto Winner's Body Remains Identified
—Orin Hargraves

From NBC Sports:
3 dead Detroit marathoners said to be healthy
—Thom Geier

Have you spotted any memorable crash blossoms? Let us know in the comments below!


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Ben Zimmer is executive editor of Vocabulary.com and the Visual Thesaurus. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday February 2nd 2010, 8:38 AM
Comment by: Don H. (Antioch, CA)Top 10 Commenter
Made me smile! Thanks!
Tuesday February 2nd 2010, 11:04 AM
Comment by: Kathleen C. (Arima Trinidad and Tobago)
I saw this once: "Nut screws up, then bolts!"
Tuesday February 2nd 2010, 1:19 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Here's one from the Fresno Bee in Sept. 2005: "Derailed Train Speeding"

I know we can't count these others, because they are not a headlines but appeared in the text of the articles, (also from the Fresno Bee): I include them simply because I can't bear to leave them out:

From an article about keeping your pets safe in hot weather: "Remember to make sure that your pet cannot tip over the water containers and place them in a shaded or covered area in the yard."

From an article about New Orleans following Katrina: "Now we are also told that Mardi Gras may be back on schedule. How could such radical improvement happen at ground zero in a city of corpses that supposedly would not recover for decades?"
Tuesday February 2nd 2010, 9:50 PM
Comment by: Zachary P. (Goleta, CA)
At the time of its original publication, a headline ran as "Study Increases the Prevalence of Autism." I looked it up again, and it seems they eventually recognized its Crash Blossom status and changed it to "Study Finds Increased Prevalence of Autism"
Thursday February 11th 2010, 7:34 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
In Google News this morning:
Attorney challenges claim Walker's lifestyle is 'nonissue' in California case

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Margaret Hundley Parker uses the crash blossom "Man Helps Dog Bite Victim" to think about teaching grammar.