Crash Blossoms: Headlines Gone Wrong

by Shealah Stratton

Published at 2010-08-05

Crash blossoms: Headlines Gone Wrong

Shealah Stratton


What’s a crash blossom, you ask? Ben Zimmer wrote an article about the phenomenon in the Language Section of the New York Times in early January 2010. He provided an insightful look into the construction of newspaper article titles and how the removal of “little words” can result in a headline that is often cryptic, confusing, or humorous when it’s not meant to be. Examples include “Boy Chases Away Man Who Shot His Dad with Kitchen Knife,” or the classic “Eighth Army Push Bottles Up Germans.” Other instances can be found on the blog called Crash Blossoms: Headlines Gone Wrong, where readers submit the confusing and often unintentionally humorous headlines they’ve found in English-language newspapers.


The term was coined by editor Mike O’Connell, who read the headline “Violinist Linked to JAL Crash Blossoms,” causing him to wonder what a “crash blossom” was (the article was about a classical violinist whose career flourished after her father’s death in a Japan Airlines crash). O’Connell posted about it on the online forum the Testy Copy Editors, and another forum member, Dan Bloom, suggested that “crash blossom” was a good label for these linguistic gaffes. The name stuck, and it is gaining wider appeal, especially in editorial and linguistic circles.


The little words absent in crash blossoms are primarily articles (a, as, the) and auxiliary verbs (forms of to be, to do, and to have being the most common). They are sometimes removed from a headline for the sake of brevity. But English is a weakly inflected language – that is, words are rarely modified to indicate their grammatical role – and many words can function either as a noun or a verb. On top of that, plural nouns and many third-person singular present tense verbs are marked with the same suffix, “-s.” (Incidentally, this is why Latin was the language of the powerful in Western society for so long;  suffixes in that classical language change depending on case, number, and tense, making it extremely succinct and accurate.)


When the little words are removed in English, part of the context is lost in the words remaining, making it harder to determine the correct interpretation. Syntax is also important, and ignoring conventional word order in a sentence can lead to confusion. For the headline “Boy Chases Away Man Who Shot Dad with Kitchen Knife,” a simple rearrangement and the addition of a pronoun would have made the meaning clearer: “Boy with Kitchen Knife Chases Away Man Who Shot His Dad.”


Beth heard a crash blossom last week on a radio news report, when the anchor stated “All on board were dead when the plane crashed,” implying that everyone on board the plane was dead before it hit the ground. Have you seen a crash blossom recently? Scan your newspaper for them, or watch the headline ticker on Cable Pulse 24 news (a common source), and let us know if you find one!