A crash blossom is a poorly worded headline that can be read in more than one way. In most of the common examples one of the readings is humorous. (Non-humorous crash blossoms aren’t usually selected as examples, presumably because they’re not exciting enough.) An example of a crash blossom is:
Girl found alive in France murders car
—BBC News, September 2012
Or this one:
Death Happens Slower Than Thought
—Discovery News, 23 July 2013
Or this one:
McDonald’s Fries the Holy Grail for Potato Farmers
—Associated Press, 23 September 2009
Crash blossoms bloom because of the clipped style of headlines, which often use terse phrases or omit words. In the first example above, the ambiguity arises because the headline uses the compound noun “France murders” to denote a string of killings that had been occurring in that country. But readers could end up understanding “murders” as a verb. It the others it’s the omission of words that cause the problem. There would be no ambiguity if the headlines had read “Than Previously Thought” or “Fries Are the Holy Grail.”
The name crash blossom was inspired by an August 2009 headline in Japan Today that read:
Violinist linked to JAL crash blossoms
The headline is ambiguous. Is it some kind of flower that grows on airplane crash sites? The story is actually about violinist Diana Yukawa who achieved professional success in the aftermath of a 1985 Japan Airlines crash that took her father’s life. Some posters on the Testy Copy Editors internet discussion forum dubbed such headlines crash blossoms, and the name stuck.
Crash blossoms are the headline equivalent of what in ordinary prose are called garden-path sentences, sentences that the reader thinks will lead them one place when they start, but end up going something place else altogether.
Crash blossom joins such terms as Cupertino (an off-the-wall spell checker suggestion, as in Cupertino for the common typo cooperatino, after Cupertino, California, home to Apple Computer—which explains why an obscure place name is in the software as an approved spelling); eggcorn (a misinterpretation of a spoken word, after eggcorn for acorn); snowclone (a stock phrase that is varied to fit a particular context, as in X is the new Y); and mondegreen (a misinterpreted song lyric, after “They had slain the Earl of Moray/And Lady Mondegreen” instead of the actual lyric, “They had slain the Earl of Moray/And laid him on the green.")
While the term crash blossom is new, the phenomenon is not. Crash blossoms have been blooming for as long as headlines have carried their distinctive, clipped style. But beware many lists of crash blossoms. Many of the examples are fictitious. My favorite is “British Left Waffles on Falkland Islands,” but alas I have seen no evidence that this headline was actually printed in a newspaper. Why people think they need to make such things up when there are so many true examples is a mystery, but that’s the world we live in.
Also, avoid assigning the blame for the crash blossom to the article’s reporter. In most news organizations the articles and the headlines are written by different people. Also, one suspects that not all crash blossoms are mistakes. Sometimes the editors are just having fun.
Carey, Stan, ”BBC Crash Blossom: Girl Murders Car,” Sentence First, September 2012
Zimmer, Ben, ”On Language: Crash Blossoms,” New York Times, 27 January 2010
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton