A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Who was Dr. Spooner of "spoonerism" fame?

June 11, 2002

Dear Straight Dope:

My questions regards the late Reverend Spooner, the "Miss Malaprop" of one of those high-brow British universities (Oxford or Cambridge?). The term "Spoonerism" is named for him--in speech, accidentally transposing first letters or first syllables of adjacent words, as in "toin coss" or "Bread & Bekfast Inn" (ones I personally will stumble over if I don't catch myself first). His own most famous--and therefore most suspect--spoonerism was supposed to have been at a church service, where he was heard to tell a parishioner "Mardon me, Padam, but this pie is occupewed -- may I sew you to another sheet?" My wife and friends maintain that this is just too much to be true. I maintain that the poor soul had this type of speech error name after him, so why not? What do sou yay?

A spoonerism, of course, is a transposition, a form of malapropism. In a Time magazine essay on slips of the tongue, Roger Rosenblatt says many malapropisms are "uninteresting," but that "spoonerisms are a different fettle of kitsch."

There is some difference of opinion about what constitutes a true spoonerism. Some authorities view that a spoonerism can only involve an exchange of initial sounds (usually consonants); thus, "peas and carrots" becomes "keys and parrots." Others allow transposition of syllables ("Don't put all your Basques in one exit") or word parts ("When I throw rocks at seagulls, I leave no tern unstoned."). And others allow the transposition of entire words ("The cows sent into orbit became known as the first herd shot round the world.")

Word transpositions are very old. The French call them contrepèterie, and they date back to the 12th Century. Rabelais in 1533 wrote, "Femme folle à la Messe/Femme molle à la fesse." (The woman is crazy at Mass, she has a soft ass.) 

Many people think the first English spoonerism was from the days of King Arthur, when young Lancelot couldn't afford a horse and so rode a St. Bernard and was told, "I wouldn't send a knight out on a dog like this."

In fact, the first recorded transposition in English dates to 1622: Henry Peacham (the younger) recounts, in The Complete Gentleman (a guide to good manners): "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.'"

Creating puns and word transpositions was a lively game throughout 19th-century England. Some humor historians argue that the fad began around 1854, sparked by a series of novels by Cuthburt Bede (a pseudonym for Edward Bradley) about an undergraduate at Oxford, who often uttered inadvertent reversals, such as "poke a smipe" for "smoke a pipe." The fad was especially prevalent among medical students in London, and the transpositions were known as "Medical Greek" or "Hospital Greek."

In the U.S., transpositional humor was popular in the west. Reportedly, Abraham Lincoln was fond of them. A manuscript written by Lincoln begins "He said he was riding bass-ackwards on a jass-ack through a patton-crotch " It is not clear whether Lincoln created this piece or just copied it.

However, we today describe such transpositions as "spoonerisms," named after the Reverend Dr. William Archibald Spooner (1844-1930). Spooner attended New College, Oxford, as an undergraduate in 1862, and remained there for over 60 years in various capacities, ultimately as warden (equivalent to the U.S. president of a college).

He published little of significance but was highly respected. Students and colleagues remembered him with affection, and their memoirs portray him as intelligent and wise, stern but kind, the model of the kindly Oxford don.

Julian Huxley in 1942 wrote that Spooner was "a good scholar and a good teacher" with "that rare quality which I can only describe as saintliness." In a 1970 memoir Huxley wrote, "In spite of [his eccentricities] . . . , he became a worthy and respected Warden, and successfully administered the College's affairs for many years."

Historian Arnold Toynbee said that Spooner "looked like a rabbit, but he was as brave as a lion. He was prepared at any moment to stand up to anybody, however formidable."  Yet this teacher and scholar and administrator is remembered today for his absurd bird-watching--er, word-botching.

We know that he did, certainly, make a few unintended transpositions. But the legend grew rapidly and overtook the reality, and so he is credited (blamed?) for a huge number of slips that he probably did not commit.

One of his students said, decades later, "I was always hoping to hear him utter a spoonerism, but never did."

Ironically, most of the slips that we can attribute to Spooner with certainty were not word transpositions so much as malapropisms, absent-minded blunders and inverted logic. For example:

  • He once called a famous Irish play "The Ploughboy of the Western World."
  • At dinner, he attempted to clean up spilled salt by pouring wine on it (reversal of the usual procedure.)
  • After meeting a widow, he remarked to a friend that it was very sad, "her late husband was eaten by missionaries."

Witnesses claimed they heard Spooner say, "The weight of rages will press hard upon the employer," "in a dark, glassly," and "chase the train of thought." One reasonably authentic account says that he introduced Dr. Child's friend as "Dr. Friend's child." Spooner himself admitted to only one spoonerism, announcing the hymn "Conquering Kings Their Titles Take" as "Kinkering Congs."

OK, so he made a few slips. Heck, I've taught probability classes and talked about a random toin coss.

College students in those days were as devious as they are today. Dr. Spooner's occasional transpositions created a reputation and started a fad. Students began inventing transpositional puns, and attributing them to him. Writing in 1930, one former New College student said, "We used to spend hours in inventing 'spoonerisms.'" Don Hauptman, in Cruel and Unusual Puns, says, "The craze spread like filed wire--er, wildfire." By 1885, the term "spoonerism" was widely used at Oxford, and by the turn of the century, had spread throughout England.

Dr. Spooner was credited with such blunders as:

  • "Blushing crow" for "crushing blow"
  • A well-boiled icicle" for "well-oiled bicycle."  
  • "I have in my bosom a half-warmed fish" (for half-formed wish), supposedly said in a speech to Queen Victoria
  • A toast to "our queer dean" instead of to "our dear queen."
  • 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"
  • A stern reprimand to a misbehaving student: "You have hissed all my mystery lectures. You have tasted two worms. Pack up your rags and bugs, and leave immediately by the town drain!"
  • And, the classic you cited: "Mardon me padom, you are occupewing my pie. May I sew you to another sheet?"

Frankly, it seems to me (as to your wife and to many scholars) that these are extremely suspicious--they are "too perfect" for accidental transpositions. Toynbee suggests, "The wittier or more elegant the specimen, the less likely it is to be authentic."

Spooner himself was quite unhappy to be so famous. One evening, a group of carousing students gathered beneath his window and loudly called for him to address them. "You don't want a speech," he answered testily. "You only want me to say one of those things."

The best (well, perhaps the only) biography is Spooner, by William Hayter (1977).

Sadly, then, we just don't know what Spooner himself said, and what was attributed to him by others. To some extent, it doesn't matter. Whether through his own blunders or the wit of his students, he has given us an art form. Julian Huxley called Spooner "a man who was the direct or indirect cause of a considerable addition to the world's stock of good-natured laughter." And that can't be all bad.

Dr. Spooner's birthday was July 22. Opporknockity doesn't tune twice! Now is the time to begin a popular movement by celebrating that momentous occasion. I myself usually celebrate with friends by emptying a beg of kier.

FURTHER READING

The primary resource on Dr. Spooner and spoonerisms, from which many of the above samples are drawn, is Don Hauptman's wonderful little book, Cruel and Unusual Puns (Dell, 1991), which Mr. Hauptman advises us is now (sadly) out of print.

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