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.