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.]

Comment on this article

  • BARRY LEE

    This was the genuine article.

  • Debbie Pierce

    It must be my advanced age. Why do these spoonerism make such good sense?