English English language Usage

Crash blossoms

Q: I saw this headline in the Washington Post:  “Boehner Blasts Tea Party Critics.” Until I read the article, I wasn’t sure if he was blasting people in the Tea Party or people critical of it (it’s the former). Should I have known?

A: There’s nothing wrong with your reading comprehension. The fault lies with the headline on that Dec. 13, 2013, article in the Washington Post.

As phrased in the paper’s print edition, “Tea Party Critics” could mean either (1) critics of the Tea Party, or (2) critics in the Tea Party.

The first sentence of the article clarified the picture, explaining that House Speaker John A. Boehner “took direct aim at some of his tea party critics.”

The headline in the paper’s online edition was clearer: “Boehner attacks tea party groups as House approves budget deal.”

We’ve all come across headlines that we’ve had to read twice, or three times, to figure out. And some headlines are so tangled that only the news article itself can enlighten us.

As it happens, there’s a term for ambiguous headlines, some of which can lead to strange or ludicrous interpretations: “crash blossoms.”

The name was inspired by a truly astonishing headline, “Violinist linked to JAL crash blossoms,” which ran in 2009 in the newspaper Japan Today.

The headline had many readers wondering, What on earth are JAL crash blossoms?

As it happens, the article was about a child whose father had died in the crash of a Japan Air Lines plane more than 20 years earlier. She had since grown up and become a successful violinist.

Eureka! The word “blossoms” was a verb in that headline, not a noun. The violinist, who had a link to that JAL crash, had blossomed. But the headline suggested the existence of some violent floral phenomenon called a “crash blossom.”

Contributors to the discussion group Testy Copy Editors spotted the headline and were so tickled by it that they decided to call this kind of screw-up a “crash blossom.”

Though the term “crash blossom” is relatively new, screwy headlines have been delighting readers for generations.

The linguist Ben Zimmer wrote an On Language column for the New York Times Magazine on the subject in 2010.

“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,’ ” Zimmer wrote.

“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.’ ”

When the two of us were editors at the New York Times, newspaper people used to call those things “two-faced heds.” But we like “crash blossoms” better.

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