John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Now we have a term for it

You’ve heard about the Cupertino.* You have seen the eggcorn.** You know about the snowclone.*** Now — flourish by trumpets and hautboys — we have the crash blossom.

At Testy Copy Editors.org, a worthy colleague, Nessie3, posted this headline:

Violinist linked to JAL crash blossoms

(If this seems a bit opaque, and it should, the story is about a young violinist whose career has prospered since the death of her father in a Japan Airlines crash in 1985.)

A quick response by subtle_body suggested that crash blossom would be an excellent name for headlines done in by some such ambiguity — a word understood in a meaning other than the intended one. The elliptical nature of headline writing makes such ambiguities an inevitable hazard.

And danbloom was quick to set up a blog to collect examples of “infelicitously worded headlines.”

Such collections already exist because the phenomenon was identified long before a name was attached to it. There are two notable collections, Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim and Red Tape Holds Up New Bridge, from the files of the Columbia Journalism Review.

Please add crash blossom to your professional lexicon forthwith.



*The Cupertino effect occurs when the spell-checking system in a software program substitutes an inappropriate word. The term comes from the substitution of Cupertino for a misspelling of cooperation. A notorious Cupertino occurred at The Baltimore Sun when the spell-checker, not having Kunte Kinte in its word list, substituted Chunter Knit. The Cupertino effect is one of the principal reasons that you should be skittish about using the auto-correct function.

**The eggcorn substitutes a word or phrase of similar sound for the correct one. At The Sun the copy desk once received a story containing a reference to a toe-headed boy.

***The snowclone is a stock phrase that can be repurposed with minor variations by lazy writers who imagine themselves to be clever: X is the new Y; have X, will travel; this is your brain on X.





31 comments:

  1. Done, with thanks and in amusement.

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  2. My favorite crash blossom was from a New York Times hed of many years ago: Russian Virgin Lands in Trouble.

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  3. My favorite Cupertino effect came when I wrote a letter of resignation. The spell-checker stopped on the name of the company and suggested that the correct spelling was "Miserly."

    False, but, oh, how true.

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  4. My favorites are when a reporter wrote that a local official was upset and "felt like the little boy with his finger in the dyke."

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  5. My favorite is a crime story that had the headline: Man fingers suspect

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  6. Jean-S├ębastien GirardAugust 26, 2009 at 6:45 PM

    Isn't that just a garden-path sentence?

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  7. Or fifthwith, even.

    Sorry, but I can't help hearing that cartoon phrase (Snagglepuss, I think) every time I see or hear the word "forthwith."

    I have, stuck to my CPU at work, a headline I decided to rewrite after seeing it on a pasted-up page in our backshop, one small step from getting into the newspaper. It reads "Captain relieved after warship ran aground." I changed "relieved" to "removed," which I thought worked slightly better.

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  8. There's also the mishy-phen for the misplaced hyphen.

    For Cupertinos, I confess to being present when a spell-checker turned basketball player Roosevelt Bouie into Erosivity Boule in some editions.

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  9. Nitpick time!

    It's testycopyeditors.org, not .com.

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  10. I have been trying to popularise the phrase "straw trumpets" for headlines that appear to be made up entirely of nouns ever since the BBC ran with "Straw trumpets workplace tinsel", which the archives tells me was December 2006.

    Hercules transfer twins 'stable'
    Baby television death accidental
    Children challenge soul star will
    Baby death sparks service review
    Treasure still tops US box office
    Obama faces down abortion heckles
    Setanta holds crunch Scottish Premier League meeting
    World Health Organisation raises swine flu alert level

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  11. I have been trying to popularise the phrase "straw trumpets" for headlines that appear to be made up entirely of nouns ever since the BBC ran with "straw trumpets workplace tinsel" in December 2006.

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  12. My favourite: "Psychopath fears for young people of Derry"

    The fear was of increasing incidence of psychopathy among young people in Derry.

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  13. Some of my favorites in this genre:
    1) Man in Light Shooting Hands Out Bears
    (It's literally true but confusing: a man charged with shooting a red light camera passed out teddy bears to reporters before his court hearing.)
    2) FDA Approves Painful Bowel Drug
    (It was a drug for a painful bowel disorder.)
    3) US Eyes Boom in Nuclear Reactors
    (It was a BBC News headline, perhaps "boom" doesn't have the same implications in British usage, or somebody just thought the double meaning was funny.)

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  14. John,
    Good post and all credit due to Nessie3. Speaking of this:

    "You’ve heard about the Cupertino.* You have seen the eggcorn.** You know about the snowclone.*** Now — flourish by trumpets and hautboys — we have the crash blossom."

    Have you ever heard of or posted about an ATOMIC TYPO? Google it and you will see. Of course, we all know what a typo is and why it is called a "typo". But what in the world is an atomic typo and why is it called that?

    I stumbled upon this term a few years ago. It's when a word is spelled correctly (and therefore the spellcheck function does not catch it) but it's the wrong word for that particular headline or sentence. For example,

    nuclear OR unclear?

    Governor Crist OR Governor Chris OR Governor Christ?

    sedan OR Sudan?

    see here for more. You might explore this and do an update. I am still not sure why it is called an ATOMIC typo. Any guesses? Maybe because the mistake is so very small, like an atomic particle?

    http://atomictypo.blogspot.com/

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  15. Good grief. We now have too many of these kinds of terms. If we go overboard, they won't be cool anymore.

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  16. I love John's term, and plan to use it. It is truly beautiful. Language Log (following most psycholinguists) does uses the term "garden path sentence", but that's a much more general term for sentences that lead you down the garden path by tempting you into a mistaken parsing that it's hard to recover from. It's not a substitute for "crash blossom", which is (henceforth) a term for a particular kind of disastrously confusing collocation in a headline. Nice work, John.

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  17. I love the Cupertino. I once spell-checked a document in which I had mentioned the name of a poet friend of mine, Marilyn Horton-Barrios. The spell-checker's suggestion was "Marlin Hotrod." Apparently it knew about barrios, so it left that part of the name alone.

    Typically I turn spell-check off; I'm going to proofread the thing myself several times, anyway. I lose productivity when I get distracted by the laughter that results from outlandish suggestions, or when the checker throws all grammar rules to the wind.

    I'm also a fan of the Mondegreen, a legitimate mishearing: "Gladly, The Cross-Eyed Bear" for "Gladly the cross I'd bear."

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  18. Thanks for your definition of crash blossoms!

    Editors reviewed your entry and have decided to publish it on urbandictionary.com.

    It should appear on this page in the next few days:
    http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=crash%20blossoms

    Urban Dictionary

    -----

    crash blossoms

    (n.) -- a neologism for infelicitously-worded newspaper headlines which at first reading seem to mean one thing but upon second reading mean something completely different; often hard to figure out at first; called "crash blossoms" because one specific headline from a newspaper used the two words -- "crash blossoms" -- in a confusing way

    Japan Violinist linked to JAL crash blossoms

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  19. I think you've mischaracterized eggcorns. As I understood it, they have to be composed in such a way that the misspelling/misusage describes what the word means, or makes sense in the context of how the word's used. Like an acorn is shaped like an egg, and is a seed like corn, so "eggcorn" is a reasonable assumption as to spelling.

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  20. What do you call it when the spell checker *doesn't* catch a typo that completely changes the meaning of the sentence? Several decades ago while still working as a quality engineer for the government, I was writing a letter to one of my industry counterparts to say that the higher level of defects we were seeing in a product were due to her "inadequate tests" and I wanted her to propose more stringent testing and monitoring. While typing "tests" my finger slipped and hit the key to the immediate left of "S" changing the entire meaning of the sentence. The spell checker did not catch it because the mistyped word is a legitimate word in itself. It took three readings of the letter before I spotted the error and corrected it. Never underestimate what a spell-checker has in its dictionary.

    Retired in Elkridge

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  21. My favorite Crash Blossom was from the Stars and Stripes: "Gay Sailor Loses Appeal" Somewhat subjective wouldn't you say?

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  22. I remember, some years ago when Dr Fuchs travelled to America, the headline in a British newspaper was shorened to 'Fuchs off to America' in the days when the F word was not in common public use.

    D Burrows Brit

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  23. Mr Bloom submitted crash blossoms to the Urban Dictionary [on behalf of nessie3, who came up with the phrase in the first place], and Urban Dick accepted it, and now the New York Times Ben Schott's language blog has listed Nessie3's coinage as one of the top terms of 2009 in his year end columnblog, also known as a "blogumn" sometimes spelled as bloggiumn. Are you a bloggumnist too? So from its original inception at TestyCopyEditors to a slew (sp?) of blogs in the language cosmos to the New York Times, crash blossoms has really blossomed in just 6 months or so. Even though Philip Blanchard banned me from TestyCopyEditors for being too enthousiastic. Congrats Nessie3 in japan, where she works as an editor in Hokkaido.

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  24. Another kind of thing of this variety is the "clbuttic mistake". It's when a naive profanity filter takes its job a little too seriously as in this article about "Clbuttic Bluegrbutt": http://www.resurrectionsong.com/index.php/weblog/comments/the_perils_of_replace_all/

    While it's original meaning applies to "find and replace" style programs, I think it also applies to any kind of "throwing the X out with the Y" especially when related to issues of morality, etc.

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  25. Okay how about this one:
    http://www.vancouversun.com/news/Five+killed+daylight+shootout+Acapulco+beach/2907603/story.html

    "5 killed in daylight shootout by Acapulco beach"

    On my first read it really looked like the beach was responsible for shooting people.

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  26. I remember, some years ago when Dr Fuchs travelled to America, the headline in a British newspaper was shorened to 'Fuchs off to America' in the days when the F word was not in common public use.

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  27. I haven't seen crash blossom used anywhere else. I wonder how often these terms stick?

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  28. I think you've mischaracterized eggcorns. As I understood it, they have to be composed in such a way that the misspelling/misusage describes what the word means, or makes sense in the context of how the word's used. Like an acorn is shaped like an egg, and is a seed like corn, so "eggcorn" is a reasonable assumption as to spelling.

    ReplyDelete