Spooner’s tips of the slung | Sunday Observer

Spooner’s tips of the slung

15 January, 2023

What are spoonerisms? How did they originate? Such questions have not been answered fully in books dealing with English grammar and usage. However, we know that spoonerism is a phrase in which the speaker makes the mistake of exchanging the first sounds of two words with a funny result.

Long before the word ‘spoonerism’ appeared in the dictionary, ancient Greeks had a word for such type of language. They called it ‘metathesis’ meaning the transposing or switching sounds of words accidentally. Therefore, spoonerism is a type of metathesis.

Reverend William Archibald Spooner was the undisputed inventor of spoonerisms. He was born in London in1844 and became an Anglican priest and a scholar. He taught history, philosophy and divinity at Oxford University.

He was a dean from 1876 to 1889. From 1903 to 1924 he worked as the warden. The small-made man with a pink face spent nearly 60 years with the university. In addition to his poor sight, he had a head too large for him. However, Spooner was a kind, genial and hospitable person.

Spooner goes down in history as an absent-minded professor and a master of verbal somersaults. He has left us a legacy of laughter. The very word ‘spoonerism’ brings us a smile. English is a fertile soil for spoonerisms because of its growing vocabulary.

Unlike French, English has borrowed words from many languages such as Latin, French, German, Hindi, Tamil and our own Sinhala. As a result, there is a greater chance of accidental transpositions in letters and syllables producing rhyming substitutes that make sense in an amusing way. It is said Spooner gave us ‘tinglish errors and English terrors at the same time.’

Archaeology Fellow

One day, Spooner invited a faculty member to tea. When the guest arrived Spooner said, “Welcome our new archaeology Fellow.” The guest said, “I am our new archaeology Fellow.” Spooner cut him short by saying, “Never mind, come all the same.”

During a Sunday sermon, he said, “In the sermon, I have just preached, whenever I said Aristotle I meant St. Paul.” He probably did not resort to spoonerisms deliberately to make others laugh. He transposed words and syllables mostly when he was agitated.

One day, he pulled up a student for “fighting a liar in the quadrangle.” On another day, he was angry to see a student who had missed his history lecture. He told the student, “You have hissed my mystery lecture. You have tasted two worms.”

Being a patriot, Spooner raised his toast to Queen Victoria who was ruling England: “Three cheers for our queer old dean.” He was very much concerned about the safety of British soldiers fighting in World War I. He told his students, “When our boys come home from France, we will have the hags flung out.”

He praised farmers by calling them “Noble tons of soil.” Some of his sermons might have raised the listeners’ eyebrows. One day he said, “Our Lord is a shoving leopard.” While officiating at a wedding, he said, “Son, now it is kisstomary to cuss the bride.” When he saw a stranger sitting in the wrong place, he lost no time to say, “I believe you’re occupewing my pie. May I sew you to another sheet?”

The absent-minded professor’s spoonerisms became so famous that some of his students and others started coining new ones. One such invention was “A scoop of boy trouts” for “A troop of boy scouts.”

Contrived spoonerism

Another apparently contrived spoonerism appeared in a tavern: “Our customers enter optimistically and leave misty optically.” Dorothy Parker invented another spoonerism: “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.”

According to scholars, Spooner has left us some more authentic spoonerisms. At a naval review, he said, “This vast display of cattle ships and bruisers.” When he visited a school, he asked the secretary: “Is the bean dizzy?” After visiting a friend, he said: “You have a nosey little crook here.” On another occasion, he asked: “Who has never felt within his breast a half-warmed fish?” Here is another authentic spoonerism: “It is pleasant to travel on a well-boiled icicle.”

Spooner died in 1930 at the age of 86. If he had lived a few more years, he would have made many more spoonerisms. Through spoonerisms, he might have unwittingly taught us an important life lesson. That is you are likely to make verbal slips however much you are educated.

We should be thankful to Reverend Spooner for introducing verbal somersaults which may be quite embarrassing but harmless.

Most of us may be making such slips, but they may not go down in history as spoonerism worth remembering.

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