Words & Stuff

ss: Toffee or Key?

(10 May 1998)

William A. Spooner was
known for his penchant for
mixing things up.

When hungry, the Reverend ate
mobster in lint sauce; when
thirsty, he drank from an
old cuter pup.

Reverend William A. Spooner was at one time the Dean of New College, Oxford. He occasionally mixed up words, or parts of words, in his speech; in particular, he's said to have frequently transposed the initial sounds of a pair of words in a sentence. Most of the phrases attributed to Spooner are apocryphal; he may never have referred to Queen Victoria as "our queer old dean," or told anyone "I'll sew you to a sheet," or mentioned having a "half-warmed fish." But whether he really said these things or not, the good Reverend (like Mrs. Malaprop) gave his name in the service of the language; such transpositions are now universally known as Spoonerisms.

Spoonerisms that aren't real words happen often in casual speech; anyone might happen to say "bunkey mizness" or "funa tish," and nobody would remember the phrase ten minutes later. (I know 'cause I've heard two or three such items in the past couple of weeks and don't remember any of them.) But when someone accidentally Spoonerizes into real words -- such as the time Arthur said, "I speared Bill all over the garage!" or the time Kristen mentioned a distance "as the flow cries" -- a certain poetry can result. Here are some other Spoonerized phrases that come out as real words, more or less:

And then there was the Usenet posting in which Rich Holmes mentioned "chilled grease sandwiches"; James "Kibo" Parry responded with a comment about "bound grief."

(By the way, a Spoonerism doesn't have to switch the initial sounds; it can switch medial vowels, or even end sounds, as in "Please sin doubt in that chair.")

There's a genre of riddles based on Spoonerisms; these riddles take the form "What's the difference between x and y?" and have answers of the form "One is a ____ ____, and the other is a ____ ____," where the two phrases are Spoonerisms of each other. Such riddles can often be found in riddle books; unfortunately I don't have any examples handy. Some of the more risqué of these riddles just give the first half of the answer, allowing the listener to fill in the second half via Spoonerism.

The Spoonerism as punch line can be taken to extremes. There's a sub-genre of short-short science fiction stories which are merely setup for a final line that's a Spoonerism of a well-known saying or a line from a song. Spider Robinson turned such story-jokes into an art form in his "Callahan's" stories -- several of the Tall Tales told by characters in those stories are of this form. Almost any Spoonerism can be turned into such a story; the trick is finding a Spoonerism that makes a semi-intelligible phrase, and then building a story behind it that doesn't telegraph the punchline. Ideally, the punchline should work without your making up too many alien species with silly names. (I can't tell you how many stories end with the line "Kicks are for Trids!")

There are Spoonerisms in languages other than English, but unfortunately they're hard to appreciate if you're a monoglot like me. There's a French wordplay form known as the contrepet, for instance, involving tame phrases or sentences which, if Spoonerized, become obscene or derogatory, somewhat like the half-answered riddles mentioned above. (Also sort of like the Spoonerism equivalent of a Secret Yet, I guess.) For more information from a linguistic point of view on the contrepet and on speech errors in general (from Freudian slips to Malapropisms to Spoonerisms), read about "Language Production and Perception."

Reader comments and addenda page

Jed Hartman <logophilia@kith.org>