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Crash blossoms are news headlines whose ambiguous sentence structure gives them multiple interpretations. Headlines are written in a telegraphic style that omits copulae and articles, making it fertile for syntactic ambiguity; without these, it sometimes becomes possible to interpret a word like "bite" as a verb, even though the writer intended it as a noun, and vice versa. Such verb-noun misinterpretation is the source of ambiguity for many crash blossoms.

The term "crash blossoms" came from a headline in Japan Today—"Violinist Linked to JAL Crash Blossoms"—after Mike O'Connell posted it on the Testy Copy Editors online forum in August 2009. Dan Bloom proposed in the thread that "crash blossom" could serve as a label for such ambiguous headlines.

Examples:

  • Squad helps dog bite victim
    • A squad helped the victim of a dog bite, or a squad helped a dog to bite its victim.
  • Mutilated body washes up on Rio beach to be used for Olympics beach volleyball
    • What was to be used for beach volleyball: the beach, or the body?
  • German factory orders slide unexpectedly
    • A German factory's orders unexpectedly slid, or a German factory unexpectedly ordered a slide.
  • Man rattled by python found coiled up and hiding in his box of cornflakes.
    • Who was found hiding in the cornflakes: the python, or the man?

Sources:

Language Log (which collects crash blossoms)

Ben Zimmer, "On Language: Crash Blossoms", New York Times