Shashi Tharoor on spoonerisms
Shashi Tharoor's World of Words is a weekly column in which the politician, diplomat, writer and wordsmith par excellence dissects words and language
You may all be forgiven for missing this momentous occasion, since I nearly did too, but yesterday, the 22nd of July, was the 177th birth anniversary of the Oxford don and ordained minister Rev. William Archibald Spooner, who unwittingly gave his name to the most delightful of English language errors, known for a century and a quarter as Spoonerisms.
Rev. Spooner was famously absent-minded and tended, in his abstracted way, to switch unintentionally the vowels or consonants in two words in close proximity. Thus, intending to say that “The rate of wages will press hard upon the employer”, the Reverend declared in a lecture that “The weight of rages will press hard upon the employer”. As a preacher, he referred to “conquering kings” (a phrase from a well-known hymn) as “Kingering Kongs”. These two are, in fact, the only substantiated examples authenticated as having been actually uttered by him, but his reputation for switching word-beginnings, a notoriety enhanced by mischievous Oxford undergraduates who attended his lectures and sermons, spawned an entire cottage industry of invented Spoonerisms.
Far from being unintentional mix-ups by an abstracted professor, these were created entirely intentionally, for humorous purposes. The most famous, because it was both plausible and hilariously funny, was that in a toast to Queen Victoria, Rev. Spooner — instead of raising his glass with the words “Three cheers for our dear old queen!” — invited those present to give “Three cheers for our queer old dean!”
Another example has this man of religion, intending to intone “The Lord is a loving shepherd,” instead saying “The Lord is a shoving leopard”. And wanting to ask a couple at a wedding if it was “customary to kiss” the bride, Spooner is supposed to have said, “Is it kisstomary to cuss the bride?” In these stories, Spooner renders a “crushing blow” as a “blushing crow”, calls a well-oiled bicycle a “well-boiled icicle” and describes a “cosy little nook” as a “nosey little cook.”
But, in fact, most of the famous Spoonerisms are apocryphal and cannot be convincingly attributed to him. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (3rd edition, 1979) lists only the “weight of rages” as a substantiated Spoonerism. Most of us have uttered a Spoonerism unwittingly at some time — an error prompted by haste, carelessness or fatigue. Only his are classics.
The Oxford provenance of most of these invented Spoonerisms is apparent in their content. Thus, the Reverend, wanting to find out “Is the Dean busy?”, asks “Is the bean dizzy?” Wanting to accuse an undergraduate of lighting a fire in the college Quadrangle, he says, “You were fighting a liar in the quadrangle.” Going to church and seeing his customary place in the pew taken, he complains to an usher: “Someone is occupewing my pie. Please sew me to another sheet.” And the most brilliant of all has an indignant Spooner dismissing an errant undergrad from his presence with the words: “You have hissed all my mystery lectures. You have tasted a whole worm. Please leave Oxford on the next town drain.” (“You have missed all my history lectures. You have wasted a whole term. Please leave Oxford on the next down train.”)
The appeal of the Spoonerism is that it is a rich source of humour even when it has nothing to do with Oxford or the queer old Dean himself. For example: “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.” There’s something hilariously accurate about describing a bad “grilled cheese” sandwich as “the chilled grease sandwich”. The Washington, D.C. political comedy sketch group Capitol Steps famously referred to President Reagan as “Resident Pagan” and described US elections as “Licking their Peaders” (picking their leaders).
That indispensable source of research material, the Internet, tells me that in his poem Translation, Brian P. Cleary describes a boy who speaks in Spoonerisms (like “shook a tower” instead of “took a shower”). Humorously, Cleary leaves the poem’s final spoonerism up to the reader when he says,
“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.”