Crash Blossoms: 17 Funny News Headlines That Make No Sense

Some headlines can only mean one thing. “Eye Drops Off Shelves” isn’t one of them.

Thanos? / (Newsboy) CSA-Archive/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images; (Background) Justin Dodd/Mental Floss

In 2009, Japan Today published the headline “Violinist linked to JAL crash blossoms.” The article concerned the accomplishments of violinist Diana Yukawa, whose father was a victim of 1985’s devastating Japan Airlines crash.

But the headline alone could also imply that a violinist was linked to JAL “crash blossoms.” So editor Mike O’Connell posted the link to Testy Copy Editors, a message board for testy copy editors, along with a facetious question: “What’s a crash blossom?”

Dan Bloom chimed in to suggest crash blossom as a label for any “strangely phrased” headline, and the rest of the group enthusiastically adopted it. Before long, the nonce term (one used for a single occasion only) had transcended Testy Copy Editors and become a full-blown neologism. Linguists—including eggcorn coiner Geoffrey K. Pullum—began interrogating what qualifies as a crash blossom and, perhaps even more saliently, why newspapers are crawling with them.

What Causes Crash Blossoms

New York Times language columnist Ben Zimmer pointed out that English has countless nouns that can also be verbs (and vice versa), and it’s not always clear solely from a word’s suffix or position in the sentence which part of speech it is. Plural nouns, for instance, typically end in s—but so do many singular present-tense verbs. Phones can refer to multiple phones (plural noun) or one person making a phone call (singular verb, as in she phones). Most singular nouns, on the other hand, don’t end in s—but neither do many plural verbs. Phone can refer to one telephone (singular noun) or multiple people making phone calls (plural verb, as in they phone).

We also habitually modify nouns with other nouns, which, if the modifying noun can also be interpreted as a verb, makes things doubly confusing. Zimmer identified a 2006 AOL News headline in which these grammatical ambiguities come into stark relief: “Gator Attacks Puzzle Experts.” In other words, experts were puzzled by multiple gator attacks. But a cursory glance might have you thinking that one gator attacked multiple “puzzle experts.” Homographs are another major factor in the creation of crash blossoms. Jerk, for example, can refer to an unpleasant person or a sudden movement—and it could take you a second to figure out which kind of jerk a headline is talking about.

Full sentences usually contain enough context clues for us to parse out the truth without too many mental double takes. But newspaper headlines are written for brevity, and that can come at the expense of clarity. As Zimmer explained, “headlines sweep away those little words—particularly articles, auxiliary verbs and forms of ‘to be’—robbing the reader of crucial context.” Not to mention that the capitalization in newspaper headlines often obscures the difference between proper and common nouns. Is Bill referencing a guy named Bill, or a piece of legislation? When all the nouns around it are also capitalized, it can be pretty tough to tell.

Crash blossoms are so common (and entertaining) that the Columbia Journalism Review has published two whole collections of examples from real newspapers: 1980’s Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim and 1987’s Red Tape Holds Up New Bridge. Below are 17 of our favorites.

1. “Milk Drinkers Turn to Powder”

white powder against a black background
Milk drinker, is that you? / Xvision/Moment/Getty Images

Detroit milk drinkers thankfully didn’t transform into piles of powder, as this November 1974 Detroit Free Press headline might imply; they just started buying powdered milk because the liquid stuff was too expensive. (For what it’s worth, “Price Hike Hits” appeared above this headline, though in significantly smaller print.)

2. “Farmer Bill Dies in House”

In this April 1978 headline, The Atlanta Constitution wasn’t announcing that a farmer named Bill died in his house. The House of Representatives had just voted to kill legislation that would have “increased federal target prices for cotton, wheat and feed grains in proportion to the amount of land a farmer takes out of production this year.”

3. “Lot of Women Distressing”

This is a strange and vague way to say that many women are upset, but that’s not what the Spokane Daily Chronicle was reporting in July 1975. The United Nations Conference on Women had recently shared some damning data on the status of gender equality around the world; in other words, women’s lot—their fortune or situation in life—was distressing.

4. “Robber Holds Up Albert’s Hosiery”

four pairs of legs wearing different-colored stockings
“Albert, are these really one-size-fits-all?” / Tim Robberts/DigitalVision/Getty Images

When stealing Albert’s legwear, it’s only natural to hold it up first in order to gauge if it will fit you. But the “armed bandit” referenced in this Buffalo Evening News headline from September 1975 was simply looting a store named Albert’s Hosiery.

5. “Juvenile Court to Try Shooting Defendant”

Nobody was attempting to shoot anybody; this headline from an October 1975 issue of Deseret News referenced a defendant—a 14-year-old boy “charged in the shooting death” of a 16-year-old boy—who was being put on trial in a juvenile court.

6. “Jerk Injures Neck, Wins Award”

The journalist behind this April 1983 article in The Buffalo News didn’t (as far as we know) have a personal problem with its subject. The jerk in question is of the “sharp, sudden movement” variety. James L. Hardy Jr. won $25,000 in damages from a motel chain after he was handed the wrong room key and accidentally walked in on a woman in a nightgown. “Mr. Hardy said the weight of luggage he was carrying caused him to jerk his neck suddenly as he turned to leave the room,” The Buffalo News reported. “He said he began suffering severe pains the next morning. Later, a ruptured cervical disc surgically was removed from his spinal column.”

7. “Indian Ocean Talks”

water bubbles in the shape of a speech bubble
No thanks! / Vectorig/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images

It would have at least made the front page—not the fourth page—if a voice boomed from the depths of the ocean itself. Alas, this article in an April 1978 issue of The Coshocton Tribune was just an update on negotiations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union to curtail naval activity in the Indian Ocean. 

8. “Chester Morrill, 92, Was Fed Secretary”

Chester Morrill never found out that The Washington Post inadvertently accused him of cannibalism in an April 1978 headline: It was his obituary. (He used to be secretary of the Federal Reserve Board.)

9. “Kicking Baby Considered to Be Healthy”

A kicking baby is a healthy baby; kicking a baby isn’t good for anyone. Hopefully prospective parents cared to read past the headline of this advice column from a September 1980 issue of The Burlington Free Press.

10. “Man Is Seized in Burglaries by Use of a Pool Skimmer”

pool skimmer catching pair of goggles in a pool
A man couldn’t fit in here. / Formatoriginal/500px Plus/Getty Images

Unfortunately, a pool skimmer did not nab the crook à la a vaudeville hook pulling someone offstage. According to this article in an August 1985 issue of The New York Times, the 28-year-old thief had copped to robbing dozens of Long Island homes by sticking “a long-handled swimming pool skimmer to reach through the windows of houses … while residents slept or watched television.” (Which is arguably even funnier.)

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11. “Johnson Teacher Talks Very Slow”

Just how slow does a teacher have to talk for it to make the news? Unclear—this article from an August 1982 issue of The Indianapolis News is about the lack of progress in negotiations for teacher contracts in Johnson County, Indiana.

12. “Eye Drops Off Shelves”

several artificial eyeballs
Nobody puts loose eyeballs on a shelf. / Malte Mueller/fStop/Getty Images

The truth behind this headline from an August 1982 edition of Washington’s Tri-City Herald is surprisingly worse than a free-rolling eyeball (or Mike Wazowski making a shelf delivery). Two chain stores in the Los Angeles area had pulled all “eye drops, nose drops and nasal sprays” off shelves after “an unknown man ambled through several Alpha Beta and Thrifty stores deliberately lacing eye and nose medicines with chlorine, sulfuric acid and other substances.” (This was right around the time of the cyanide-laced Tylenol murders, which are still unsolved.)

13. “Obscenity Should Include Violence”

The writer of this op-ed from a March 1984 issue of The Asheville Times wasn’t advocating for more violence in mature content. They thought that violence should fall under the legal definition of obscenity. In other words, a movie, for example, should be ruled obscene if it’s extremely violent—not just if it’s pornographic. (They were specifically scandalized by 1979’s Caligula, which a U.S. district judge had ruled not obscene in part because, as the writer put it, “it is so disgusting that it does not arouse people, it merely repulses them.”)

14. “Here’s How You Can Lick Doberman’s Leg Sores”

goofy, wide-eyed doberman with its mouth open
“Wait, what?” / SensorSpot/E+/Getty Images

The columnist writing in this May 1982 issue of Pennsylvania’s Reading Eagle was cheekily using lick in the “defeat” sense in recommending ways the advice-seeker could stop their Doberman from licking its leg sores. Sadly, the columnist forgot that people have tongues, too.

15. “Jacksonville Pornography Free, Officials Say”

Jacksonville didn’t sponsor free porn for its residents in December 1980, as this Tri-City Herald headline implies—in fact, quite the opposite. After five years of hard work, Baptist ministers had finally succeeded in shutting down every adult bookstore and adult movie theater in the Florida city. Mayor Jake Godbold was quick to acknowledge that those kinds of businesses usually didn’t stay shuttered for long, though. “Tonight there’s no pornography in Jacksonville,” Mayor Jake Godbold said. “Tomorrow there may be.”

16. “Large Church Plans Collapse”

illustration of a wrecking ball about to hit a building
Miley Cyrus? / ninian/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images

A large church didn’t plan a collapse, nor did large plans for a regular-sized church collapse. Instead, this June 1985 article from The Hamilton Spectator covered how plans for a large church collapsed: The First Church of the Nazarene wanted to build a huge new location in Calgary, Alberta, but the initiative was plagued by financial difficulties.

17. “His Humming Rear End Is a Major Distraction”

Some headlines are so egregious that you can’t help but assume the writer knew exactly what they were doing. This “humming rear end,” which appeared in a January 1986 edition of The Toronto Star, is referring to “a high-pitched humming noise coming from the rear end” of an advice-seeker’s 1984 Chevette.