Sunday, January 03, 2010

Crash blossoms: Care and feeding

I don't think this one's going to cause long-lasting confusion, but it's good for at least a momentary double-clutch: Does "involved in third of cases" mean "involved in the third case of 71 cases" or "involved in one-third of the 71 cases"?

As the story, and the deck on the online hed, make clear, it's the second. Since there appears to be plenty of room for the clarifying "a" in the print version, it's worth speculating whether editors still expect print heds to sound more hed-like -- in other words, to follow all the traditional rules of hed dialect, even when they follow those rules into the ground.

That's unfortunate, because the rule that needs to be taught right after the one about omitting articles and "be" verbs is "except when you need 'em for clarity." Overlooking that rule tends to produce a particular kind of crash blossom:* the sports attack, as in "Smith gets shot at championship"** or "McGwire is hit with bat," which makes instant sense if you remember the Roseboro-Marichal thing but in real life was just an especially lame play on "hit" from McGwire's rookie season. (There's also the semi-oedipal "Player helps blind woman," from the NYT.)

The natural compression of heds is made glorious summer by the single-column hed, yielding gems like this one, which I think has the highest incomprehensibility rating in my Com3210 collection:


Works if you know that Wilson is a city (only about 40 miles from Raleigh, which ran the hed) with a tire factory. Otherwise ...

The one-column issue got worse with the general narrowing of webs in the '00s and the growth of page design as a craft independent of words.*** (If "Afghanistan" didn't fit in a 1/42 yesterday, what makes you think it's going to fit today?) The ship-in-a-bottle -- a nicely turned single-column hed with the phrases all breaking neatly and the modifiers all pointing in the right direction -- was and remains an admired bit of craftsmanship, but if they're one of those buggy-whip things that disappear in the Brave New Online Era, I won't miss them too much. That might be a step toward eradicating a species of invasive crash blossom.

* I'm delighted to see the widespread acceptance of "crash blossom," though the related "straw trumpets" noted by a Language Log commenter (as in "Straw trumpets workplace tinsel") is also worth mention.
** You incredible nincompoop, it's the end of the quarter.
*** Dear designers, I know most of you don't think this way, but I really did get a hed call from a Quark jedi once for a 2/60/1 with no descenders.



Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

The first meaning you offer didn't even occur to me; I think I'd expect "in third case" rather "third of cases" if that were the intent.

2:42 PM, January 03, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Crash blossoms blossom

Last summer the Testy Copy Editors weighed in on a common problem in headline writing: the headline that appears to proceed in one direction but turns out to have a completely different meaning, or, because of ambiguity in the words, a completely opaque meaning. The example, “Violinist linked to JAL crash blossoms,” led commenters to embrace “crash blossom” as the generic term for such botched headlines.

The term was quickly taken up on Language Log and other sites, and “crash blossom” has become a candidate for the American Dialect Society’s Word of the Year. The society, which opens its annual meeting in Baltimore tomorrow, will vote on the Word of the Year late Friday afternoon.

Whether or not it wins, copy editors have added a fresh and needed term to the technical vocabulary of journalism. See the original Testy Copy Editors post and the subsequent examples here.

2:10 AM, January 22, 2010  
Blogger dan said...

actually, i am the guy at Test Cpy edtrs who coined the term after reading the headline posted by Mike o Connell there. read the Times story to see. AND...i was joking, i was not serious. and now the NYTimes writes about it. What a world. like is like that. here is my latest coinage, do blog on this one too: dan bloom really me, I wrote THE SNAILPAPER STATEMENT today, and here's a preview:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that while the Digital Age is upon us fast and furious, the print newspaper -- hereafter dubbed the "snailpaper" -- shall persevere as a good daily read, a fascinating look at the world around us and a valuable tool for understanding oped pundits and above the fold headlines. Sure, the dear snailpaper will also be seen as a useful tool

for wrapping fish at the Fulton Fish Market or lining the bird cage in the den, but all kidding aside -- har! har! -- the daily snailpaper can hold its head high and be certain of its place in the culture. While news migrates in pixels and bytes to the Internet at an exponential rate, piling breaking story upon breaking story and turning everyone and his mother into a 24/7 news freak and RSS aggregator, the plodding snailpaper will nevertheless remain the bedrock of analysis and insight, from sea to shining sea, delivered at a snail's pace, yes, read at a snail's pace, yes, and absorbed, word for word -- on glorius printed paper! white newsprint reflecting inked letters! -- at a snail's pace, yes, as long as the Republic of Letters shall live."

Full blast here:

10:21 AM, February 04, 2010  

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