Crash blossom: An ambiguously written headline that encourages an unintended alternate reading. Sometimes called a "garden-path headline."
Ben Zimmer writes in the On Language column of the New York Times Magazine that "double-take" headlines such as "Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim" have been around for decades, but acquired the "crash blossom" descriptor only in August 2009, when an American editor in Japan saw "Violinist Linked to JAL Crash Blossoms" and wondered, "What's a crash blossom"? The linguistics blog Language Log—which is largely responsible for the spread of Cupertino effect, eggcorn, and snowclone—picked up the meme from John McIntyre's copy-editing blog, You Don't Say. And the examples began accumulating: "Gator Attacks Puzzle Experts." "McDonald's Fries the Holy Grail for Potato Farmers." "Red Tape Holds Up New Bridge." And McIntyre's favorite: "You Can Put Pickles Up Yourself."
After encountering enough crash blossoms, you start to realize that English is especially prone to such ambiguities. Since English is weakly inflected (meaning that words are seldom explicitly modified to indicate their grammatical roles), many words can easily function as either noun or verb. And it just so happens that plural nouns and third-person-singular present-tense verbs are marked with the exact same suffix, “-s.” In everyday spoken and written language, we can usually handle this sort of grammatical uncertainty because we have enough additional clues to make the right choices of interpretation. But headlines sweep away those little words — particularly articles, auxiliary verbs and forms of “to be” — robbing the reader of crucial context. If that A.P. headline had read “McDonald’s Fries Are the Holy Grail for Potato Farmers,” there would have been no crash blossom for our enjoyment.
Read more about crash blossoms in Stan Carey's blog, Sentence First; Chris Waigl's blog, querbeißer, and Neil Whitman's blog, Literal Minded. Neil analyzes the McDonald's example with admirable assiduity.
Image: From Stan Carey's blog.