Let’s start with the spoon in the room. You and I both know I’m only writing this post because I happened to have this photograph in my collection. I’m a sucker for a good pun.
What is a Spoonerism Anyway?
It’s one of those things that happens when your brain is working faster than your tongue and you end up transposing the opening letters of two words in a phrase. For example, if one said that the hero of the book they’re writing took a ‘blushing crow’, instead of a ‘crushing blow’. Unless the hero is in fact stealing embarrassed birds of carrion.
But Why Spoonerism?
It all began in London in 1844 with the birth of William Archibald Spooner who later became an Oxford don and ordained minister. As if his name wasn’t unfortunate enough, he was also an albino with poor eyesight which is possibly why he had such an ill-fated career with words. Spooner was both scatter-brained and highly intelligent, which explains why his tongue couldn’t keep up with his brain, leading to his occasional word fails.
Spooner as caricatured by Spy (Leslie Ward) in Vanity Fair, April 1898.
This is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. The work of art itself is in the public domain in its country of origin because the author died in 1922.
It should be noted that Spooner was highly respected by both students and colleagues, despite his little slips.
Of course, as with most generalizations, the historical record only confirms two ‘spoonerisms’ that officially emanated from the Spooner: ‘The weight of rages will press hard upon the employer’ (instead of ‘rate of wages’, listed in the 1979 Oxford Dictionary of Quotations) and ‘The Kinquering Congs Their Titles Take’ (instead of ‘the Conquering kings’) which was the only one admitted to by Spooner himself. All other spoonerisms attributed to him were probably made up by mischievous students, as his recorded blunders were mostly examples of absent-mindedness or malapropisms (as when he tried to clean up spilled salt by pouring wine on it and when he told a friend that it was so sad a certain widow’s ‘late husband was eaten by missionaries’).
Likely, the only reason his name was put to this particular practice rather than, say, that of Henry Peacham (who, in The Complete Gentleman in 1622, recorded the words of someone meaning to say ‘I must go buy a dagger,’ but instead said ‘I must go dye a beggar’) can only be ascribed to the fact that ‘spoonerism’ is so much more comforting a word than ‘peachamism’.
See more of Robert Duncan’s work here.
By 1885, spoonerisms were most definitely ‘a thing’. College students made a game of inventing them. In 1937, The Times headlined with ‘Police Court Spoonerism’ when quoting a policeman who spoke of ‘a bricklabourer’s layer’.
Not to be outdone, Douglas Hofstadter, an American professor of cognitive science, coined the terms kniferism (to refer to the transposition of the vowels or middle part of two words or syllables, as in ‘hypodeemic nerdle’ and ‘When I throw rocks at sea birds, I leave no tern unstoned.’ ) and forkerism (to refer to the transposition of the final consonants of two words, as in ‘the petal calling the cot black’ or ‘will nobody pat my hiccup?’).
These cutleryisms are collectively known as spoonerisms and have even been considered to include the transposition of entire words.
See more of Robert Duncan’s work here.
Spoonerisms have lead to a unique comedic genre which has affected poetry such as the following:
He once proclaimed, “Hey, belly jeans”
When he found a stash of jelly beans.
But when he says he pepped in stew
We’ll tell him he should wipe his shoe.
Rainbow Soup: Adventures in Poetry by Brian P. Cleary
They form the basis for books:
“Runny Babbit lent to wunch and heard the saitress way, ‘We have some lovely stabbit rew, our special for today.'”
Runny Babbit: A Billy Sook by Shel Silverstein
…and are used in comedy skits:
Presenter: And what is your next project?
Hamrag Yatlerot: Ring Kichard the Thrid.
Presenter: I’m sorry?
Hamrag Yatlerot: A shroe! A shroe! My dingkome for a shroe!
Presenter: Ah, King Richard, yes. But surely that’s not an anagram, that’s a spoonerism.
(Michael Palin and Eric Idle in Monty Python’s Flying Circus, 1972)
To avoid uncomfortable situations, however, I do advise that you are particularly careful to avoid spoonerisms whilst playing cards, especially if you are laying down the four of hearts.
- “A well-boiled icicle” (instead of “well-oiled bicycle.”)
- “It is kisstomary to cuss the bride.”
- “ye noble tons of soil” (when addressing farmers)
- “You have hissed all my mystery lectures. You have tasted two worms. Pack up your rags and bugs, and leave immediately by the town drain!”
- “When our boys come home from France, we will have the hags flung out.”
- “Don’t sweat the petty things and don’t pet the sweaty things” (George Carlin)
- “Speaking as a Christian, I find the Apostle Paul appealing and the Apostle Peale appalling.” (Adlai Stevenson’s response to Preacher Norman Vincent Peale’s dislike of him)
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