spoonerism

A spoonerism is an accidental transposition of the initial sounds, or other parts, of two or more words. For example, ‘you have hissed the mystery lectures,’ rather than ‘you have missed the history lectures.’

This type of error is named after the Reverend Spooner (1844–1930), Warden of New College, Oxford, who was notoriously prone to this mistake. The term “Spoonerism” was well established by the early 1920s. The Reverend suffered from dysgraphia, a form of dyslexia that is described in the OED as ‘a disturbance of the clear distinction of the sounds of words, confusion between closely related phonemes.’

The term ‘spoonerism’ was known colloquially in Oxford in his lifetime and was first written down in a piece from the London newspaper The Globe, February 1900.

In his poem “Translation,” Brian P. Cleary describes a boy named Alex 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.

Most of the quotations attributed to Spooner were probably made up by colleagues and students as a pastime. And many have been made up since then. Here are a few examples:

Annual shower flow (annual flower show)
Bad salad (sad ballad)
Bass-ackwards (ass-backwards)
Britannia waives the rules (Britannia rules the waves)
Bunny phone (funny bone)
Chewing the doors (doing the chores)
Chipping the flannel (flipping the channel)
Crawls through the fax (falls through the cracks)
Damp stealer (stamp dealer)
Flutter by (butterfly)
Full bottle in front of me (full frontal lobotomy)
His nose was Roman; his grin pure cheek (chin pure Greek)
Hypodemic nurdle (hypodermic needle)
I’m shout of the hour (I’m out of the shower)
Keys and parrots (peas and carrots)
Lack of pies (pack of lies)
Mad banners (bad manners)
Mean as custard (keen as mustard)
Mend the sail (send the mail)
My zips are lipped (my lips are zipped)
Pit nicking (nitpicking)
Plaster man (master plan)
Pleating and humming (heating and plumbing)
Rental deceptionist (dental receptionist)
Roaring with pain (pouring with rain)
Soppy cheese (choppy seas)
Tease my ears (ease my tears)
The rutting season for tea cosies (the cutting season for tea-roses)
This is the pun fart (this is the fun part)
Trail snacks (snail tracks)
Wave the sails (save the whales)

Somewhat rude ones:
Sir, you are certainly a shining wit.
He’s a smart fella.

A very rude one:
Years ago, a friend of mine had to make a speech at a company dinner put on by the pulp mill where she worked. In the speech, she referred to “fallers and buckers,” loggers doing specific jobs. You can spoonerize that one for yourselves, just as she did.

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