Join my VIP list for alerts on new books! Join my VIP email list

Spoonerisms: Tips of the Slum!

Many perhaps never said by The Reverend Spooner at all

As an enthusiast for language with all its twists and turns, I love spoonerisms, but until I started researching this piece, I confess I was often assigning malapropisms as spoonerisms. Doh!

So, what’s the difference?

What is a Spoonerism?
Simply put, a spoonerism is a verbal mistake – a tip of the slum, if you will – where someone accidentally transposes the corresponding consonants, sounds, or morphemes of two or more words in a phrase, often to comic effect.

A morpheme, incidentally, is the smallest part of a word that still has a function or meaning. So, in the word ‘unbelievably’, the morpheme is ‘believe’ with ‘un’ the prefix, and ‘ably’ the suffix.

So, to keep the morphemes in slip of the tongue to turn it into tip of the slum, we can’t simply use tlip of the song(ue) as this produces one nonsense word, and only one morpheme. Although, that could be correctly labelled a malapropism, where the end result can quite happily be nonsense words.

Hence, that favourite of T-shirt wearers: I get so Mucking Fuddled!

Where did it come from?
This oddity of speech takes its name from ordained minister and Oxford don, the Reverend William Archibald Spooner (1844–1930), who was infamously prone to slips of the tongue. He was Warden of New College, Oxford, during the first quarter of the 20th century.
Rev Dr W A Spooner
The Rev Spooner was by no means the first proponent, however. Early usage goes back to the 16th century, when French author François Rabelais used examples in his novel, Pantagruel. Although, at the time, they were known as contrepèteries, and differed in meaning from spoonerisms in that they were usually somewhat more risqué:

‘Femme folle à la messe et femme folle à la fesse’ is offered as an example from Rabelais’ work, meaning ‘insane woman at mass, woman with flabby buttocks’. (I guess you had to be there…)

There is also marrowsky or morowsky, which originated in Poland in the 18th century, and takes its name from a nobleman who suffered from spoonerisms.

In Finnish, there’s sananmuunnos, ‘word transformation’, or sometimes kääntösana, which is word play in the Finnish language that is similar to a spoonerism. But, strangely enough, according to Wikipedia, much of practical sananmuunnos involves spoonerisms that form some kind of obscene double entendre.

By the early 1920s, The Times mentioned spoonerisms in an article, lending an almost official seal of approval to the word. But, it would seem that the majority of common examples attributed to the Rev Spooner may not have been said by him at all. They were more likely to have been made up by his colleagues and students.

Best examples
One substantiated spoonerism is “The weight of rages (instead of “rate of wages”) will press hard upon the employer.” The American linguist and author, Richard Lederer, also listed “Kinkering Kongs (“Conquering Kings”) their titles take”, although from my own research I would have put this down as a malapropism…

Other of Lederer’s favourites include:

“A blushing crow.” (“crushing blow”)
“Tons of soil.” (“sons of toil”)
“A well-boiled icicle.” (“well-oiled bicycle”)
“Mean as custard.” (“keen as mustard”)
“A nosy little cook.” (“cosy little nook”)
“You were fighting a liar.” (“lighting a fire”)
“A half-warmed fish” (“half-formed wish”)
“You hissed my mystery lecture.” (“missed my history lecture”)

False etymology
Spoonerisms are often used to spuriously explain the origins of words. I was rather disappointed to find out that one of these fakes is for the English word butterfly. Although it would be lovely if it was true, sadly it is not derived from a spoonerism of ‘flutter-by’.

This week’s Word of the Week is occasionalism, meaning a lexeme created for a single occasion to solve an immediate communication problem.