Crash Blossoms: 14 hilarious ways in which newspaper headlines have been misread
Shashi Tharoor's World of Words is a weekly column in which the politician, diplomat, writer and wordsmith par excellence dissects words and language
By Shashi Tharoor
Published: Wed 30 Nov 2022, 9:46 PM
Newspaper headlines are an unfailing source of pleasure for language mavens, because of the howlers they commit in their desire for brevity. An assortment of amusing ambiguities result from headline-writers omitting crucial verbs and punctuation marks to save space. Among the most famous of these was the Japan Today headline “Violinist Linked to JAL Crash Blossoms”— for an article about how a musician, whose father died in a Japan Airlines plane crash, was now flourishing. But the phrasing of the headline led a testy copy-editor to wonder, “What’s a crash blossom?” The phrase caught on in the esoteric world of copy-editors, till “crash blossoms” stuck as the term of art for all headlines that could be misread.
Legendary headlines from the colourful history of newspaper disasters include “Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim” (a hyphen between dog and bite might have helped!), “Red Tape Holds Up New Bridge” (“delays” instead of “holds up” would have worked better) and “MacArthur Flies Back to Front” (the General was returning by plane to the war-front — perhaps less economical phrasing could have prevented the hilarity that greeted this headline). I’ll let you readers figure out what the headline-writers of these actual newspaper stories presumably meant with the following (all true headlines, believe me!): “Giant Waves Down Queen Mary’s Funnel,” “Eighth Army Push Bottles Up Germans”, “Missing Woman Remains Found”, and “Whale Watching Boat Carrying 27 Sinks.”
That last one raises the obvious questions, why was the whale watching a boat, and why was the boat carrying 27 sinks rather than other bathroom appliances also? A “crash blossom” could have been avoided by introducing a hyphen between “whale” and “watching” and replacing “sinks” with “capsizes”. Even the famous BBC News is not exempt from such errors as “St John Ambulance to teach teens to help stab victims.” Is the ambulance company seeking to drum up business by teaching teenagers to stab people, one might ask — or performing a humanitarian service by instructing young people how to assist victims of knife-attacks?
Such headlines reflect the haste with which newspapers work, because many of them could have been avoided if the writer had re-read before submitting the headline. Thus the headline “McDonald’s Fries the Holy Grail for Potato Farmers” made the elementary mistake of forgetting that “fries” is a verb as well as a noun. The writer obviously meant to convey that “McDonald’s French-Fries Are the Holy Grail for Potato Farmers”. Instead, his slapdash headline left many readers wondering why a fast-food chain was cooking the most mythical sacred object in Christian legend. “Gator Attacks Puzzle Experts” suffered from “puzzle” being both noun and verb, so “puzzle experts” — people very good at solving puzzles — must have feared that alligators were especially targeting them!
Similarly, the headline “Google Fans Phone Expectations by Scheduling Android Event” could be read as admirers of Google telephoning their hopes. Wouldn’t it have been better to say “Google Raises Expectations of New Phone by Scheduling Android Event”? Nouns that can be misconstrued as verbs (and vice-versa) are often the hallmarks of crash blossoms. A classic example is The Guardian’s headline “British Left Waffles on Falklands.” The newspaper clearly meant that the left-wing political parties in Britain were unable to articulate a coherent position on the Falklands crisis (in other words, they intended the word “Left” to be read as a noun and “Waffles” as a verb), but many readers thought their compatriots abandoned their breakfast food on these Atlantic islands!
The Guardian’s headline-writers were guilty again of “Supreme Court Plans an Attack on Independent Judiciary, says Labour”. Most readers thought this meant the Labour Party was accusing the Supreme Court of planning an attack on the judiciary. You had to read the first line of the article beneath the headline to understand that it actually meant the opposite: “Government-backed plans to reduce the size of the Supreme Court and rename it have been condemned by Labour as an assault on the independence of the judiciary”.
The desire to summarise is often the newspaper editor’s biggest bugbear. But as long as newspapers exist and headlines have to be written, we can expect crash blossoms continuing to bloom.