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Spoonerisms Are Unplanned Slips of the Tongue

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Caricature of Dr. Spooner published in "Vanity Fair" in 1898.

Caricature of Dr. Spooner published in "Vanity Fair" in 1898.

A Clan of the Moth

We all suffer from occasionally tangling the language into peculiar knots; the mouth starts moving before the brain is fully engaged. Alcohol is often the lubricant that causes these verbal accidents to happen. But, the Reverend William Spooner was an abstemious fellow, yet he is alleged to have committed so many spoken blunders that he gave his name to a particular form of the problem.

In a spoonerism, vowels, consonants, or syllables are switched around inadvertently so as to produce words and phrases that are amusing to the listener and embarrassing to the speaker.

As a man of the cloth (or, 'clan of the moth' as he might say), Rev. Spooner frequently addressed his flock from the pulpit; on one occasion, it is claimed, proclaiming that “the Lord is a shoving leopard.”

The Life of William Archibald Spooner

Spooner was born in 1844 and became a minister in the Church of England and a distinguished Oxford don. He lectured on philosophy, ancient history, and religion.

An article in The Reader’s Digest describes him as “an albino, small, with a pink face, poor eyesight, and a head too large for his body. His reputation was that of a genial, kindly, hospitable man.”

He became Warden of New College, a title that modestly understates that he was the person in charge.

Although his name is forever associated with humourous verbal cartwheels he seems to have rarely uttered them unintentionally. In fact, only a couple of Spooner-generated spoonerisms have been authenticated.

The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations in 1979 attributes “The weight of rages will press hard upon the employer” to Dr. Spooner.

At his golden wedding anniversary, he admitted that he once announced to his congregation that the next hymn would be “Kinkering Kongs their Titles Take.” Perhaps, a couple of mischievous undergraduates were in the pews that day and they gave birth to a legend. After his death, one student admitted “We used to spend hours in inventing spoonerisms.”

An obituary in 1930 records that he often deliberately mangled sentences “to live up to his reputation.”

Famous Non-Spooner Spoonerisms

It’s unfortunate that the Reverend Spooner should be remembered for generating chuckles over his language difficulties rather than his scholarship; especially, because the poor man was not guilty as charged.

Many spoonerisms erroneously attributed to the good clergyman have been collected at The Straight Dope:

  • Upon dropping his hat: “Will nobody pat my hiccup?”
  • At a wedding: “It is kisstomary to cuss the bride.”
  • Paying a visit to a college official: “Is the bean dizzy?”
  • Addressing farmers as “ye noble tons of soil.”
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And, the list of claimed spoonerisms goes on:

  • “A well-boiled icicle;”
  • “Go and shake a tower;”
  • “This vast display of cattleships and bruisers;”
  • “He was killed by a blushing crow.”

None of these absurd bird watchings, oops that should be word botchings, were actually Dr. Spooner’s.

A weather forecaster in England was heard to predict “drainy rizzle.”

A weather forecaster in England was heard to predict “drainy rizzle.”

Spoonerisms Appear in Many Places

The compilers of cryptic crossword puzzles, those wily manipulators of language, love spoonerisms as ways of hiding the answers to clues. Here’s one from the U.K.’s Telegraph newspaper: “Spooner’s cheerful enthusiast.” Without the intervention of Rev. Spooner the answer is “merry fan;” once the vicar has had a chance to twist it around it becomes “ferryman,” which is the correct answer.

This is the sort of linguistic somersaulting that suggests it might be a good idea to start a variant of the witness protection program for those who create cryptic crosswords.

Broadcasters fall prey to the foot-in-mouth syndrome from time to time. An Australian (some say British) newsreader once referred to a “hyperdeemic nurdle,” while a weather forecaster in England was heard to predict “drainy rizzle.”

Golden-throated BBC announcer McDonald Hobley once introduced Sir Stafford Cripps, Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time, as Sir Stifford Crapps. Hobley’s American counterpart, Harry von Zell, read a lengthy radio tribute to President Herbert Hoover and ended by referring to him as Hoobert Heever.

And, Lowell Thomas made a completely gaseous hash of the phrase “She suffered a near-fatal heart attack.” It came out “She suffered a near fart . . . err fatal heart attack.” It was some time before he could stop giggling and continue with his newscast.

Occasionally, underpaid newsroom editors set traps for the high-priced anchor with the central-casting good looks and the golden throat who does not read his copy before going on air by describing a tornado as a “sucking funnel of wind.”

The last words go to Henry Peacham who predates the Reverend Spooner by well over 200 years. In his The Complete Gentleman of 1622 he tells the story of “A melancholy gentleman, sitting one day at a table where I was, started up upon the sudden, and, meaning to say ‘I must go buy a dagger,’ by transposition of the letters, said: ‘Sir, I must go dye a beggar.’ ”

Do you occupew this pie?

Do you occupew this pie?

Bonus Factoids

  • Although not a classic spoonerism such as “Do you occupew this pie? writer Dorothy Parker is credited with this gem: “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.”
  • Frederick Chase Taylor starred in a 1930s radio show called Stoopnagle and Budd. The central character was Colonel Stoopnagle who was afflicted with the vocal somersaulting that produced giggles in the audience. The “colonel” published a book in 1945 of spoonerized children’s stories such as Bleeping Sleuty and The Pea Little Thrigs.
Colonel Stoopnagle.

Colonel Stoopnagle.


  • “Reverend Spooner’s Tips of the Slung.” Reader’s Digest, February 1995.
  • “Obituary: Dr. W.A. Spooner.” The Guardian, September 1, 1930.
  • “Who Was Dr. Spooner of ‘Spoonerism’ Fame?” The Straight Dope, June 11, 2002.
  • “Cryptic Crosswords for Beginners: Spoonerisms.” Alan Connor, The Guardian, March 1, 2012.
  • “The Quick 10: 10 Spoonerisms and other Twists of the Tongue.” Stacey Conradt, Mental Floss, March 20, 2010.
  • “Spoonerism Message Lost in Translation.” Don Boxmeyer, Knight News Service, November 4, 1980.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Rupert Taylor


S Maree on July 29, 2017:

Oh! the embarrassing memories! So many of us have "spooned" a phrase or pulled Freudian slips! I recall telling a friend that someone was "skating on thin water". Naturally we had to be in a group of college buddies. Yeesh! Keep it up! I don't feel so alone!

Ann Carr from SW England on July 27, 2017:

Spoonerisms are great fun, whether intentional or not. I love plays on words and had a few grins at this. Thanks for the entertainment this morning.

Suzie from Carson City on July 26, 2017:

Rupert....Too much fun! Thanks for this light-hearted & interesting article. Besides making me chuckle, I learned something new.

Beth Perry from Tennesee on July 26, 2017:

This was fun to read! I remember as a little kid watching "Hee-Haw" and loved Archie Campbell tell his hilarious spoon-agled fairytales!

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