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Let's Look At The Language

April 9, 2011

There's nothing like a good spoonerism to tickle a bunny phone

The English economist Sir Roy Forbes Harrod (1900—1978) once said that, compared to all the scholars he had known at Oxford and Cambridge, the Rev. William Archibald Spooner (1844—1930) was the most exceptional in "scholarship, devotion to duty, and wisdom."

There is no reason to question Harrod's assessment, but that's not exactly the imprint by which Spooner is best remembered.

For those who love the humorous side of language, Rev. Spooner is known for one thing, and one thing only: the spoonerism. As defined in the New Oxford American Dictionary, a spoonerism is "a verbal error in which a speaker accidentally transposes the initial sounds or letters of two or more words, often to humorous effect, as in the sentence 'you have hissed the mystery lectures,' accidentally spoken instead of the intended sentence 'you have missed the history lectures'."

In the etymology, it is importantly noted that spoonerism is "named after the Rev. W. A. Spooner, who reputedly made such errors in speaking." The important word here is "reputedly."

Despite the permanently forged connection between Rev. Spooner and "his brand" of misspoken phraseology, there is little evidence to prove that this was a common trait of his.

It may be true that he unintentionally spoke in spoonerisms all the time, but in fairness to the good reverend, it is probably more accurate to say that many, if not most (if not all) of the spoonerisms that have been ascribed to him over the years never actually came out of his mouth.

But such is the power of association. He is the man for whom the spoonerism is named, so he must have been the one to have said the long litany of transposed gems credited to him.

Rev. Spooner, it should be said, was so displeased by all of this that he once remarked to a crowded audience, "You haven't come for my lecture, you just want to hear one of those ... things."

Among "those things" commonly attributed to him are these five muddled remarks:

"Is the bean dizzy?" (Is the dean busy?)

"We'll have the hags flung out." (We'll have the flags hung out)

"Such Bulgarians should be vanished." (Such vulgarians should be banished.)

"The Lord is a shoving leopard." (The Lord is a loving shepherd.)

"To our queer old dean." (To our dear old queen.)

Considering that we all slip up with an occasional spoonerism, it's rather remarkable that this verbal misstep went unnamed until the 20th century, when an old Oxford don disapprovingly lent his name to it. Commonly caught spoonerisms in modern speech include "lack of pies" (pack of lies), "belly jeans" (jelly beans), "cart the star" (start the car), "Ferris Prance" (Paris, France), "sealing the hick" (healing the sick), "bedding wells" (wedding bells), "bowel feast" (foul beast), and "wave the sails" (save the whales).

Not surprising, spoonerisms are often created deliberately for the comic effect, although technically they are not genuine examples of spoonerisms, which by definition are unintentional.

In 1956, presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson created one of the most famous intentional spoonerisms in this reference to Norman Vincent Peale (a controversial minister outspoken in his opposition to Stevenson): "Speaking as a Christian, I find the Apostle Paul appealing and the apostle Peale appalling." My dad, who was a Stevenson supporter, would use his own spoonerism to describe Peale -- he would say, "He's a smart feller." I'll let you figure that one out for yourselves.

Edmeston resident Christine A. Lindberg, senior US lexicographer for Oxford University Press, is the principal content editor of Oxford's American English dictionaries and thesauruses. Opinions expressed by Lindberg in this column are done so independently, and do not necessarily reflect the policies and practices of Oxford University Press. Have a question or comment relating to the English language? E-mail Selected submissions will be answered here periodically.

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