Silver Spoonerisms

In honor of April Fool’s Day, let’s look once again at the lighter side of language.

You’ve surely heard, or perhaps even committed, a spoonerism – the exchange, often accidental, of the initial letters or sounds of two words, which results in a surprising and funny new meaning. For instance, one might intend to say “It’s time to leave the house” but inadvertently say “It’s time to heave the louse.”

Since childhood, I’ve been fascinated by spoonerisms. In 1991, Dell published Cruel and Unusual Puns, my book on the subject. I still occasionally write articles about the genre for fellow logophiles.

The word spoonerism derives from William Archibald Spooner (1844-1930), a clergyman and a scholar and official at Oxford University. He supposedly uttered these blunders constantly. Scolding a student: “You have hissed all my mystery lectures. You have tasted two worms.”

Only a handful of genuine spoonerisms are attributed to Dr. Spooner, and even those have been disputed. Mischievous students invented most of his alleged bloopers, yet the myth that Spooner said them persists to this day.

Spoonerisms continue to be crafted deliberately for humorous purposes. Consider the following specimens. If any stump you, remember the principle of reversing the initial letters of two of the words.

• Unadoptable section of the animal shelter: Nixed mutts.

• First lesson for Starbucks’ baristas: Heed the foamless!

• Why celebrities usually tolerate autograph seekers: A good fan is hard to mind.

• Alert for Australian soldiers: But mate – there’s war!

• What it’s called nowadays when teenage girls know so much that their beleaguered dads can’t keep up: The well-aware daughter gap.

• That bittersweet feeling on returning from summer vacation: One sighs; it’s fall.

• Homer Simpson’s reaction when he belatedly heard about Chamberlain’s 1938 appeasement of Hitler: Better the Neville you… d’oh!

Is all this just silly fun, without practical value? No! The study of spoonerisms and other speech errors gives us a “window into the mind,” say neurologists, psychologists, and linguists who do research in human behavior. It yields important clues about how the mind works; how language is acquired, structured, and retrieved; and how language disabilities such as dyslexia might be treated or cured.

My hunch is that you’ll now be on the alert whenever you encounter tips of the slung. Er, I mean, “slips of the tongue”!

[Ed Note: For more than three decades, Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant. He is author of The Versatile Freelancer, an e-book recently published by AWAI that shows writers and other creative professionals how to diversify their careers into speaking, consulting, training, and critiquing.]

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Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant for more than 30 years. He may be best known for his headline “Speak Spanish [French, German, etc.] Like a Diplomat!” This familiar series of ads sold spectacular numbers of recorded foreign language lessons for Audio-Forum, generating revenues that total in the tens of millions of dollars. In the process, the ad achieved the status of an industry classic. Don’s work is mentioned in three major college advertising textbooks, and examples of his promotions are cited in the books Million Dollar Mailings (1992) and World's Greatest Direct Mail Sales Letters (1996). In a column in Advertising Age, his name was included in a short list of direct-marketing “superstars.” He has a parallel career as a writer on language and wordplay. His celebration of spoonerisms, Cruel and Unusual Puns (Dell, 1991), received rave reviews and quickly went into a second printing. His second book was Acronymania (Dell, 1993). Recently, Don retired from full-time copywriting in order to focus on other interests, including his passion for “recreational linguistics.” He is at work on a new book in that genre. He is a regular contributor to the magazine Word Ways and writes “The Language Perfectionist,” a weekly column on grammar and usage, for Early to Rise. Don is author of The Versatile Freelancer,an e-book from American Writers and Artists, Inc. (AWAI) that shows copywriters – and almost anyone – how to diversify their careers into consulting, training, critiquing, and speaking.