Cannibals, Crash Blossoms, and CEOs

Kadavu (Fiji Islands). From the Scottish Geographical Magazine. Published by the Scottish Geographical Society and edited by James Geikie and Arthur Silva White. Volume V, 1889.

I’m not sure how many hours of my life were wasted watching Gilligan’s Island reruns as a child, but it always seemed like one or more of the characters was getting tied up by the local “headhunters” while a big pot of water boiled nearby.

Mrs. Howell: Thurston, I didn’t know we were asked for dinner.
Mr. Howell: I’m afraid my dear we are the dinner.

The mortuary and bioarchaeology blog Bones Don’t Lie provides a more nuanced picture of the practice of cannibalism, reviewing (in its Oct. 4 post) a recent study of human remains from archaeological sites and a museum collection in Fiji. The research, conducted by Sharyn Jones (University of Alabama-Birmingham) and others, is published in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology.

Anthropologists and other scholars study a variety of clues, including cut marks on bones and ethnohistoric accounts, to place cannibalism in cultural context. This allows comparisons to be made between different case studies from around the world.

As the Bones Don’t Lie blogger, Katy Meyers, points out, “Cannibalism occurs for a number of reasons in a number of ways: people consume other humans when they are foreigners or from that culture, it can be for veneration or violation, or it can be as a source of sustenance.”

In Jones’ study, she goes on to explain, stable isotope analysis showed that “human flesh” was not a significant part of the diet of the individuals examined. Nor did the remains bear the marks of violence. “This means it was ritualistic, perhaps associated with ancestor worship.”

Crash Blossoms

“No, dear. I can’t make sense of this one either.”
Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Geoff Livingston










I actually paused before posting on cannibalism, wondering if I was guilty of seeking an attention-grabbing headline. Some other headlines just leave you scratching your head, because they read in a way that was not intended by the headline writer. Although this phenomenon has probably been around as long as newspapers themselves, it finally got a name a few years ago: crash blossoms.  Editors Mike O’Connell and Dan Bloom coined the term after discussing an ambiguous newspaper headline: “Violinist Linked to JAL Crash Blossoms.”

Linguist Bill Zimmer wrote in The New York Times:

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.

via On Language – Crash Blossoms –

Language Log, a great place to learn what linguists are talking about, discusses the occasional crash blossom. The Crash Blossoms blog is devoted entirely to these confusing headlines.


I’m not sure if this qualifies as a crash blossom, but the following Science Daily headline caught my attention: “Summer Babies Less Likely to be CEOs.” Once I wiped away the image of infant-executives screaming and flinging strained peas across the boardroom, I read the article.

“What do you mean 1st quarter earnings are down?” Crying Baby by bbaunach, used with Creative Commons licensing.

According to the Science Daily piece, researchers at the University of British Columbia business school examined the birthdates of 375 CEOS from S&P 500 companies from 1992 to 2009. They somehow determined which executives had been the youngest and oldest in their classes. They found that the “oldest,” who were born in March and April, made up 12.53 percent and 10.67 percent of the sampled leaders. In contrast, the “youngest,” born in June and July, made up only 6.13 percent and 5.87 percent of the CEOs.

The results will be published in Economics Letters in December. It’s unclear to me how the researchers accounted for who was held back and who was advanced at school, and why those particular birth months were chosen to represent the youngest and oldest, so I would like to read more.

Maurice Levi, coauthor of the study, explained that older children typically perform better than younger classmates in their grade at school, which may lead to them obtaining leadership roles and other advantages.“We could be excluding some of the business world’s best talent simply by enrolling them in school too early,” Levi said.

Interesting news. But I don’t think it’s anything to fling your peas over.