Spoonerisms and other slips of the tongue
A slip of the tongue
The English language has a remarkable propensity for being misunderstood. It’s bad enough that words mean different things to different people in various cultures; it becomes worse when words in a sentence get mistakenly mixed up. This is usually called a “Slip of the Tongue” A “Spoonerism” is when the first letter or syllable of words in a sentence are transposed.
An example of a slip of the tongue comes from one of the most embarrassing moments of my life. I was the M.C. of a folk concert in the Welsh town of Carmarthen. In front of an audience of about two thousand people, I introduced a band, Aberjabber was the name, but instead of introducing them as “Wales most up and coming group” I introduced them as “Wales up and most coming group” The audience was delighted and I was reduced to jelly. However, “Spoonerisms” are unlike other slips of the tongue, they are a different “Fettle of Kitsch"
William Archibald Spooner
William Archibald Spooner (22, July 1844 – 29, August 1930) was a well liked and highly educated Don at NewCollege, Oxford. He was warden from 1903 until he retired in 1924. He lectured in Ancient history, Divinity and Philosophy. He was also an ordained Priest in the Church of England. His colleagues always spoke highly of his knowledge and wisdom but he is not remembered for any of that. He is famous because he got his murds wuddled. He became so well known for it that these malapropisms became known as “Spoonerisms”. He was not exactly thrilled with his notoriety, it is recorded that he once told an audience; “You haven’t come to hear me speak, you just want to hear me say one of those ‘Things’ “
Most of the Spoonerisms attributed to him were never said by him at all. They were the embellishments of his students. He did admit to one, he agreed that he said “Kinkering Congs Their Titles Take” but the reputation must have come from somewhere. Perhaps the most notorious occurred when, at a reception, he was called upon to make the Loyal Toast. Instead of raising his glass to “Our Dear Queen” he toasted “Our Queer Dean” They were unintentional, mere slips of the tongue but they have survived and will probably continue to do so.
Some others attributed, rightly or wrongly to him are;
"The Lord is a shoving leopard",
"It is kisstomary to cuss the bride"
"Mardon me padam, this pie is occupewed. Can I sew you to another sheet?"
"You have hissed all my mystery lectures, and were caught fighting a liar in the quad. Having tasted two worms, you will leave by the next town drain"
"We'll have the hags flung out"
"He was killed by a blushing crow".
Richard Brinsley Sheridan was the originator of the word "Malapropism" Sheridan was the owner of the Drury lane Theatre in London, an Actor, a Playwright and a Whig member of the British Parliament, he sided with the opposition leader Charles james Fox and supported the American Colonials in his speeches to Parliament. He was held in such high esteem that on his death he was buried in the poets corner of Westminster Abbey. He lived a colorful life and fought a famous duel against Captain Thomas Mathews who had defamed the lady he was about to marry where he nearly lost his life.
His first play was written in 1775 called "The Rivals" it was a failure on the first night so he did some creative re-casting and it went on to become a smash hit. In the play appears a "Mrs Malaprop" The word is derived from the French "mal a propos" which means inappropriate Mrs Malaprop would use the wrong word in a sentence for example "Their father was some kind of civil serpent" or "He is the very Pineapple of politeness"
Other plays of his, such as "The school for scandal" have become classics of English literature but it is The Rivals that added the word malapropism to the English language.
Such slips of the tongue are not the only way that the English language confuses and causes misunderstandings. Sometimes the varied accents and similarities in sound can be interpreted as other than the original meaning.
Robert Bridges wrote a tract in 1913 “The present state of English pronunciation” There he tells of a colleague, a Dr. Gee who was doing his rounds at a hospital. A newly admitted patient had nothing really the matter with him so the Dr. asked for his bed-card and proscribed a diet with a placebo. After he had left the patient looked at the card and seeing the words “Ter Die” thought that he was about to be euthanized and fled the hospital. His style of English translated the phrase as “To Die” when in medical Latin it means: “Three times a day.”
Even the legal profession is not exempt from such misunderstandings. The following story was printed in the U.K. newspaper The Spectator on 12th September 1992.
“A barrister was in court on Monday morning when the Judge said “I’m afraid we’ll have to adjourn this case. I have written my judgment out, but I left it in my cottage in Devon and I can’t get it sent here until tomorrow.” The barrister, trying to be helpful, said “Fax it up, my Lord.” To which his Lordship replied, “Yes, it does rather.” The whole exchange appears to have taken place using the most judicial of tones.
The miracle of language is; that with all the possibilities for error, we still manage to communicate somehow.