Background knowledge

On April 25th, on ADS-L, from Pat O’Conner (of, under the heading “A crash blossom for the ages”:

Dare you to decipher this one, from Reuters (London) on April 16th:

“Stuttering Man City Held by Bottom Side Sunderland”

Pat translates:

“Man City” is Manchester City, a football (soccer) team (or “side”). Sunderland is another; it plays in the lowest league (“bottom”).

The crash blossom label comes from the fact that the first three words — Stuttering Man City —  are potentially ambiguous in parsing, as

(a) [ Stuttering Man ] + [ City ]  OR  (b) [ Stuttering ] + [ Man City ]

Parsing (a) builds up the constituency word by word from the beginning (which is sometimes held to be preferred to other parsings, ceteris paribus); and it makes more sense (if you don’t have the background knowledge), since (b) appears to posit a stuttering city. Desite these two considerations, (a) is not the intended parsing.

Several commenters noted that they had absolutely no problem with the head, but then they knew that:

(i) Manchester City is a British football (soccer) team; and (ii) Manchester City is abbreviated informally as Man City.

You can be ignorant of both of those things (I believe many Americans are); you can know the first thing but not the second (my state of knowledge for a while); or you can know them both (as most Britons, and quite a few others, do).

Consider Victor Steinbok’s ADS-L posting of the 26th:

Since I’m used to Brit football headlines, I had no problem reading it and would not have given it another thought. I suppose, it might look like a crash blossom to someone who’s not familiar with the subject matter

But if you’re not familiar with the subject matter, it is a crash blossom (for you). Such classifications involve a relationship between an expression and a speaker and are not absolute, free of context.



2 Responses to “Background knowledge”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    My first thought after reading the first four words was that it had something to do with a man with a speech impediment who had been detained by the local municipality (no, really, I’m not kidding), but this didn’t seem to make much sense, and the rest of the headline made it into complete nonsense. But I had no idea what it actually meant until I read Pat’s explanation.

  2. rjp Says:

    Mild pedantry – Sunderland don’t play in “the lowest league”; they play in the same league as Man City (The Premiership – top league in the country) but they are currently at the bottom of it.

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