The Language Perfectionist: Unintended Double Meanings

Not long ago, an editor e-mailed a document to me, but it somehow went astray. When I told her that it hadn’t arrived, she responded with the words: “I resent it.” I wrote back, jokingly, “What do you resent?”

This is a case of a linguistic ambiguity. Because English is filled with double meanings and puns, such confusions can easily occur. The results can be amusing or tragic — or both.

Here are some classic ambiguous headlines, all alleged to be genuine mistakes. (The first became the title of a book that immortalized such errors.)

  • Red Tape Holds Up New Bridge
  • Kids Make Nutritious Snacks
  • Killer Sentenced to Die for Second Time in 10 Years
  • Milk Drinkers Are Turning to Powder
  • Enraged Cow Injures Farmer With Ax
  • Grandmother of Eight Makes Hole in One
  • Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim

Last year, the term crash blossom appeared. It refers to headlines, like those above, that have double meanings and can be misconstrued. This odd coinage itself comes from a newspaper headline: “Violinist Linked to JAL Crash Blossoms.” (Explanation: A musician whose father was killed in an airline accident was recovering from the trauma.)

As a veteran collector of funny mistakes, I’m perplexed by the term. It strikes me as excessively twee. The word blooper has been around for more than half a century, and is perfectly adequate to describe these risible ambiguities.

But the important lesson here is to be careful in your writing. A draft should always be reviewed carefully — by several pairs of eyes — to ensure that everything is clear and that nothing is subject to misinterpretations that could have embarrassing or dangerous consequences.

[Ed Note: For more than three decades, Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant. He is author of The Versatile Freelancer, an e-book that shows writers and other creative professionals how to diversify their careers into speaking, consulting, training, and critiquing.]

Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant for more than 30 years. He may be best known for his headline “Speak Spanish [French, German, etc.] Like a Diplomat!” This familiar series of ads sold spectacular numbers of recorded foreign language lessons for Audio-Forum, generating revenues that total in the tens of millions of dollars. In the process, the ad achieved the status of an industry classic. Don’s work is mentioned in three major college advertising textbooks, and examples of his promotions are cited in the books Million Dollar Mailings (1992) and World's Greatest Direct Mail Sales Letters (1996). In a column in Advertising Age, his name was included in a short list of direct-marketing “superstars.” He has a parallel career as a writer on language and wordplay. His celebration of spoonerisms, Cruel and Unusual Puns (Dell, 1991), received rave reviews and quickly went into a second printing. His second book was Acronymania (Dell, 1993). Recently, Don retired from full-time copywriting in order to focus on other interests, including his passion for “recreational linguistics.” He is at work on a new book in that genre. He is a regular contributor to the magazine Word Ways and writes “The Language Perfectionist,” a weekly column on grammar and usage, for Early to Rise. Don is author of The Versatile Freelancer,an e-book from American Writers and Artists, Inc. (AWAI) that shows copywriters – and almost anyone – how to diversify their careers into consulting, training, critiquing, and speaking.