A “spoonerism” is a slip of the tongue where the speaker inadvertently swaps the consonants or vowels in a phrase. Spoonerisms are named after the Reverend W. A. Spooner (1844-1930) who was Dean and Warden of New College in Oxford, England. He is reputed to have made these verbal slips frequently. Officiating at a wedding ceremony, Spooner prompted a hesitant bridegroom, “Son, now it is kisstomary to cuss the bride.”
- “A blushing crow” instead of “crushing blow.”
- “Those girls are sin twisters.”
- “I was hocked and shorrified.”
- “We each had tee martoonies.”
- “She joins this club over my bed doddy.”
- “He rode off on his well-boiled icicle” instead of “well-oiled bicycle.”
- “You have tasted a whole worm.” (to a lazy student)
- “You will leave by the town drain.”
- “The Lord is a shoving leopard” (Loving shepherd)
- Upon dropping his hat: “Will nobody pat my hiccup?”
- “Go and shake a tower” (Go and take a shower).
- Paying a visit to a college official: “Is the bean dizzy?”
- Addressing farmers as “ye noble tons of soil”.
And, the classic: “Mardon me padom, you are occupewing my pie. May I sew you to another sheet?”
When Spooner died in 1930 at the age of eighty-six, The New York Times allotted his obituary nearly a full column crammed with choice examples of the literary curiosity bearing his name.
- At the time of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee, said the Times, he was credited with calling for a toast to “our queer old dean” instead of to “our dear old Queen.”
- On a visit to the British fleet at Portsmouth, he was quoted as asking to go out and see the “cattleships and bruisers.”
- A student once noted that he had been rebuked by the warden for “fighting liars in the quadrangle,” and an entire class was scolded severely for “hissing my mystery lectures.”
As author and lecturer Richard Lederer points out, because our language has more than three times as many words as any other – 616,500 and growing at 450 a year. Consequently, there’s a greater chance that any accidental transposition of letters or syllables will produce rhyming substitutes that still make sense – sort of.
Spooner wasn’t the only one known for slips of the tongue (or Tips of the Slung)… Radio announcer Harry Von Zell once introduced the president as Hoobert Heever. And BBC announcer McDonald Hobley once presented British Minister Sir. Stafford Cripps as Sir. Stifford Craps.
The earliest transcribed English specimen of a spoonerism in action can be found in The Compleat Gentleman, written by Henry Peacham in 1622: “…meaning to say ‘I must go buy a dagger,’ by transposition of the letters, [I] said: ‘Sir, I must go dye a beggar.’”
Other terms for spoonerism are “metathesis” and “marrowsky”.
D. Minkova and R. Stockwell comment in “English Words: History and Structure” (2009) that “Although metathesis occurs commonly in many languages, the phonetic conditions for it can be identified only in very general terms: Certain sound combinations, often involving [r], are more susceptible to metathesis than others.” The word “metathesis” comes from the Greek word meaning to transpose. It’s also known as a permutation.
“Wasp used to be ‘waps’; bird used to be ‘brid’ and horse used to be ‘hros.’ Remember this the next time you hear someone complaining about ‘aks’ for ask or ‘nucular’ for nuclear, or even ‘perscription.’ It’s called metathesis, and it’s a very common, perfectly natural process.” (David Shariatmadari, “Eight Pronunciation Errors That Made the English Language What It Is Today” The Guardian, March 2014).
“A famous example from Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ is the figure of Caliban whose name originates from a phonological metathesis of /n/ and /l/ in ‘cannibal.'” (Heinrich F. Plett, Literary Rhetoric: Concepts-Structures-Analyses”, 2009).
Metathesis in the Pronunciation of “Ask” as /aks/
“While the pronunciation /aks/ for ‘ask’ is not considered standard, it is a very common regional pronunciation with a long history. The Old English verb ‘ ascian’ underwent a normal linguistic process called metathesis sometime in the 14th century. Metathesis is what occurs when two sounds or syllables switch places in a word. This happens all the time in spoken language (think ‘nuclear’ pronounced as /nukular/ and ‘asterisk’ pronounced as /asteriks/).
“Metathesis is usually a slip of the tongue, but (as in the cases of /asteriks/ and /nukular/) it can become a variant of the original word.
“In American English, the /aks/ pronunciation was originally dominant in New England. The popularity of this pronunciation faded in the North early in the 19th century as it became more common in the South. Today the pronunciation is perceived in the U.S. as either Southern or African-American. Both of these perceptions underestimate the popularity of the form.” (“ax-ask,” Mavens’ Word of the Day, Dec. 16, 1999).
“Metathesis is a common linguistic process around the world and does not arise from a defect in speaking. Nevertheless, /aks/ has become stigmatized as substandard—a fate that has befallen other words, like ‘ain’t,’ that were once perfectly acceptable in educated society.” (“The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style”, 2005)
The word is first recorded in the verbal form Marrowskying in the critical review of the first edition (1859) of A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words, by the English publisher and author John Camden Hotten (1832-73), review published in The Athenæum: Journal of Literature, Science, and the Fine Arts (London) of 23rd July 1859:
“One old English mode of canting [to quote our author] was the inserting of a consonant betwixt each syllable; thus, taking g, ‘How do you do,’ would be ‘Howg dog youg dog?’ This, according to Grose¹, was called gibberish.”
Another cant, we may add, has recently been attempted by transposing the initial letters of words; so that a mutton chop becomes a cutton mop, a pint of stout a stint of pout; but we are happy to add that it has gained no ground. This was called Marrowskying.
The word marrowsky is of unknown origin. It might be from a personal name. A correspondent gave the following explanation in The Irish Times of Tuesday 25th September 1923:
To the Editor of The Irish Times.
Sir,—The letter of “S.” which appeared this morning in your columns reminds me that in my childhood, many years ago, an old cousin used to entertain me with what we now call “Spoonerisms,” but which she termed “Morowskis.” On my inquiring the reason for this curious name my cousin told me that her mother (who dated from the eighteenth century) had taught her the game, stating that the original perpetrator of these strange transpositions was a Polish Count who was well known in London society of that period.—Yours, etc. “E. D-N.”
Dun Laoghaire, Sept. 24th, 1923
The following was published in The British Medical Journal of 22nd June 1912:
“THE PSYCHOLOGY OF “MARROWSKYING.”
All actors live in dread of “marrowskying,” that curious transposition of syllables which often illustrates the truth of the saying that from the sublime to the ridiculous there is but a step. The actor who said, “Stand back, my lord, and let the parson cough” (instead of “coffin pass”) may have made a solitary slip, but in some persons “marrowskying” amounts to a veritable infirmity. We knew an excellent clergyman who was the delight of the more frivolous among his hearers because he was never known to preach a sermon without introducing a reference to a “farren big tree,” or dwelling on the fact that “many are called but chew are fosen,” ending the text with the impressing exhortation, “Be ye therefore of the fosen chew.” We remember a fastidious lady shocking the porter at a railway station by telling him that she had only a “rag and a bug,” meaning, of course, a rug and a bag. The name of the head of a famous college at Oxford⁴ has become proverbial for this kind of defect of speech. How does this kind of inversion arise? Professor Joseph Jastrow, the well-known American psychologist, says it is due to an “intrusion of the subconsciousness” of the speaker. We subconsciously construct our sentences before uttering them, and sometimes the preliminary framework gets mixed up with the permanent timber. According to the Literary Digest, Professor Jastrow says: “The complexity of speech requires the occupation with many processes at once, and some of these—the nicer, more delicate, less familiar ones—will receive the major attention, while the routine factors engage but a minor degree of concern. Slight fluctuations in the condition of the speaker—physiological ones, such as fatigue, and, for the most part, psychological ones, such as excitement, apprehension, embarrassment—will induce variations in the nicety of adjustment that are recognizable as typical slips of tongue or pen, and, still more significantly, of the tongue-and-pen-guiding mechanism. . . . There are the anticipations, the persistencies, the interchanges, the substitutions and the entanglements of letters, and of words and parts of words, and of phrases—all of them indicative of shortcomings in the minute distribution of attention and co-ordination.” He gives a number of examples, and shows that “marrowskying” is not confined to the tongue, but occurs in writing. This is one of the many sources of error in copying printed or manuscript matter. The mind runs on ahead of the eye, and a jumble of syllables is the result. Should this by any chance happen to make sense, it leads to a corruption of the text which may have far-reaching consequences. Copyists’ errors have been classified; it would be interesting if “marrowskyers’” blunders could also be classified and the etiology and mechanism of the condition elucidated. The occurrence of an accident of the kind engenders a fear of repetition of the misadventure, which may lead a man to give up all attempts at public speaking.
Read a Story with Spoonerisms
One of my favorite things to read for spoonerisms is Shel Silverstein’s “Runny Babbit: A Billy Sook” . This is a poem about Runny Babbit and his many friends, like Toe Jurtle and Millie Woose. As you might imagine, all the characters speak in spoonerisms.
Follow Terry Foy (aka Zilch the Torysteller) even make a living doing it. You can visit his Bacefook, err, Facebook page, to learn more about what he does and listen to samples of his storytelling.
Read Smart Feller, Fart Smeller: And Other Spoonerisms by Jon Agee. Question: “What did it say on the fragile package?” and when you turn the page you get the spoonerized answer. In this case, the answer is “Candle with hair.”
Spoonerisms often make an appearance when you try to say something too quickly, especially something with similar sounding phonemes, also commonly known as the tongue twister. The lapsus linguae (slip of the tongue) is common and one might wonder why it took until the nineteenth century, nonetheless it’s likely something we’ve all stumbled upon in one way or another.
Finally, leaving you with my favorite funnyman, George Carlin, when he would say “Don’t sweat the petty things and don’t pet the sweaty things.” Sound advice.
“Reverend Spooner’s Tips of the Slung.” Reader’s Digest, February 1995.
“Obituary: Dr. W.A. Spooner.” The Guardian, September 1, 1930.
“Who Was Dr. Spooner of ‘Spoonerism’ Fame?” The Straight Dope, June 11, 2002.
“Cryptic Crosswords for Beginners: Spoonerisms.” Alan Connor, The Guardian, March 1, 2012.
E.M. Bujor. Foonerisms Can Be Spunny. Medium