Spoonerisms: Twisted Tongues and Mangled Words
What is a Spoonerism?
A spoonerism is “the accidental transposition of initial sounds or syllables of two words, usually with humorous results, as roaring pain for pouring rain.” The word is derived from Dr. William Archebald Spooner (1844-1930), an apparently nervous reverend/teacher. While spoonerisms are commonly slips of a tangled tongue, they can be employed intentionally as a humorous play on words.
His most renowned spoonerism was supposedly at a church service, when the congregation overheard him say to a parishioner, “Mardon me, Padam, but this pie is occupewed—may I sew you to another sheet?” It is very doubtful that Dr. Spooner said this, as many such spoonerisms were attributed to him which he insisted he did not say.
A spoonerism is a transposition and a form of malapropism, which is defined as an absurd or humorous misuse of a word, especially by confusion with one of similar sound ("A witness shall not bear falsies against thy neighbor." - Archie Bunker in All in the Family.) Indeed, a malapropism does not have to be amusing or surprising, nor be based on a cliché, nor does it have to be intentional. There need be no play on words nor hint of deliberate pun. In a Time magazine essay on slips of the tongue, Roger Rosenblatt says many malapropisms are "uninteresting," but that "spoonerisms are a different fettle of kitsch."
Who is Doctor Spooner?
Spocter Dooner...er...Doctor Spooner was a warden – comparable to a university or college president – of New College at Oxford University, who is credited with having made many such transpositions. He first arrived at New College as an undergraduate and remained for more than sixty years, serving as Fellow, Lecturer, Tutor, Dean, and finally Warden. His lecture topics included ancient history, divinity, and philosophy.
Spooner was an odd looking man, but was extremely well liked and respected. He was described as an albino, small, with a pink face, poor eyesight and a head too large for his body. His well-earned reputation was that of a genial, kindly, hospitable man.
The History of Spoonerisms
Did the first English spoonerism date back to the days of King Arthur? Many people believe so, beginning when young Lancelot couldn't afford a horse and rode a St. Bernard instead. He supposedly was told, “I wouldn't send a knight out on a dog like this.”
In truth, Henry Peacham (the younger) is credited with documenting
the first spoonerism in print in his 1622 manners book, The
Complete Gentleman, when he recounted: “A melancholy
gentleman, sitting one day at a table where I was, started up upon
the sudden, and, meaning to say 'I must go buy a dagger,' by
transposition of the letters, said: 'Sir, I must go dye a beggar.'"
Throughout 19th-Century England, creating puns and word transpositions was enjoyed as a lively game. Some humor historians propose that the fad began around 1854 following the publication of a series of novels by Cuthburt Bede (a pseudonym for Edward Bradley) about a student at Oxford who often spoke with accidental reversals, such as “poke a smipe” for “smoke a pipe.” Medical students in London particularly enjoyed the game, and the transpositions were known as “Medical Greek” or “Hospital Greek.”
Transpositional humor was also popular in the U.S., particularly in the West, and even Abraham Lincoln was reportedly fond of them. In one Lincoln manuscript, he begins, “He said he was riding bass-ackwards on a jass-ack through a patton-crotch.” What is not clear is whether Lincoln authored the piece or simply copied it.
Today, however, we call these transpositions “spoonerisms.” Dr. Spooner loathed his reputation as the premier utterer of the transpositions that bore his name, and continually denied having said them. Once when a group of students had gathered before his window to hear him speak, he refused, saying, "I know what you're here for. You want to hear one of those...things." In his later years, however, he softened to his reputation, even granting permission to publish some of them as attributable to him.
To that, we may all say, "Yank thou, Spoctor Dooner."
Archie Campbell & Betty Boop in Rindercella
Most of the spoonerisms attributed to the good doctor are apocryphal. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (3rd edition, 1979) lists only one substantiated spoonerism': “The weight of rages (rate of wages) will press hard upon the employer.” Interestingly, Spooner himself claims only having uttered one, and it is different than the Oxford quotation: In reference to the hymn The Conquering Kings, Spooner said “The Kinquering Congs.”
Most spoonerisms were probably never uttered by William Spooner himself, but rather made up by colleagues and students as a pastime. Whether he uttered them or not, they are fun to read. Below is a list of some spoonerisms attributed to Doctor Spooner.
"Three cheers for our queer old dean!" (dear old queen, referring to Queen Victoria)
"Is it kisstomary to cuss the bride?" (customary to kiss)
"The Lord is a shoving leopard." (a loving shepherd)
"A blushing crow." (crushing blow)
"A well-boiled icicle" (well-oiled bicycle)
"You were fighting a liar in the quadrangle." (lighting a fire)
"Is the bean dizzy?" (dean busy)
"Someone is occupewing my pie. Please sew me to another sheet." (occupying my pew...show me to another seat)
"You have hissed all my mystery lectures. You have tasted a whole worm. Please leave Oxford on the next town drain." (missed...history, wasted...term, down train)
“We all know what it is to have a half-warmed fish inside us.” (half-formed wish)
“When the boys come back from France, we'll have the hags flung out. (flags hung out)
In the 1930s and 1940s, F. Chase Taylor – under his pseudonym of Colonel Stoopnagle – wrote many spoonerism fairy tales which appeared both in print and on his radio show. The original ones were printed in the Saturday Evening Post and he eventually published a collection of the stories in 1946 – a book which is now sadly out of print and much sought after. However, we are pleased to bring you a number of these stories on Fun-with-words.com, by Colonel Stoopnagle and other authors: Titles you can read here include:
Prinderella and the Since by Colonel Stoopnagle
Beeping Sleauty by Colonel Stoopnagle
Ali Theeva and the Forty Babs by Colonel Stoopnagle
The Pea Little Thrigs by Mark Fitzsimmons
Goldybear and the Three Locks
Donald Davidson, "A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs," in Philosophical Grounds of Rationality, ed. R. Grandy and R. Warner, 1986; The straightdope.com; grammar.about.com; and those as mentioned in the text.
You can generate your own spoonerisms with the help of this free spoonerism generator. The name itself is a spoonerism: Fablebish.
More by this Author
Dr. Seuss made a great impression on me as a child, and I suppose that this is true for many children and their parents, as much today as then. He was the world's greatest poet. I've met his spirit.
You become aware of the thing by accident usually. With a casual brush of the hand, and then the realization that you have a pimple. The tale of one man's Homeric odyssey with the pimple from hell!
Throughout history, redheads have been feared and revered, loathed and adored, degraded and exalted. Here's an amusing look at the myths, legends, and a photo gallery of famous redheads with insightful quotes about the...