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Kinkering Kongs and Other Tips of the Slong: Spoonerisms

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Regina is a freelance medical writer and editor. She has a Bachelor of Arts in linguistics.

Caricature of Dr. Spooner by Leslie Ward (pseudonym, "Spy"), published in the magazine Vanity Fair (no. 711) on April 21, 1898, as "Men of the Day."

Caricature of Dr. Spooner by Leslie Ward (pseudonym, "Spy"), published in the magazine Vanity Fair (no. 711) on April 21, 1898, as "Men of the Day."

In 1879, Dr. William Archibald Spooner (1844 AD –1930 AD), a clergyman, stood behind the pulpit before his congregation and announced the title of the next hymn: Kinkering Kongs Their Titles Take. He had made yet another verbal blunder, which the local townspeople called a “spoonerism.” He had meant to say Conquering Kings Their Titles Take.

A spoonerism is a verbal error in which corresponding consonants, vowels, or syllables are switched between two words in a phrase. During his lifetime, Spooner admitted only to having spoken the aforementioned spoonerism. However, his colleagues and his students at the University of Oxford (London, England) attributed several spoonerisms to him such as “Three cheers for our queer old dean [dear old queen]!” when he referred to Queen Victoria and “The weight of rages [rate of wages] will press hard upon the employer.”

Dr. Spooner’s inadvertent “spoonerisms” started a diversion among his students, who created transpositional puns and attributed them to him. Some spoonerisms inspired by, but not necessarily spoken by, Dr. Spooner, are

• “The Lord is a shoving leopard [loving shepherd]”
• “A blushing crow [crushing blow]”
• “A well-boiled icicle [a well-oiled bicycle]”
• “A nosey little cook [cozy little nook].”

Spoonerisms often happen unintentionally with the speaker unaware of the blunder—until people begin to laugh. Even as far back as the time of the Renaissance (c. 14th–17th centuries), spoonerisms have been used for a comedic effect. Renaissance French author Francois Rabelais (c. 1494 AD–1553 AD) was a pioneer in using spoonerisms (called contrepèterie in French) in literature.a For example, in his book Pantagruel (written in 1532 AD) in the chapter “Des Meurs & Conditions de Panurge” [“Deaths and Conditions of Panurge”], the main character Panurge states: “car il disoit qu'il n'y avoit qu'une antistrophe entre femme folle à la messe, et femme molle à la fesse” [“for he said that there was only one antistrophe between a crazy woman at mass and a woman with a soft buttock”)b].

In modern times, some of the most famous spoonerisms were recorded during the Golden Age of Radio (1920s –1950s). Mary Livingstone, actress and wife of comedian Jack Benny, was noted for her inadvertent spoonerisms during live radio shows of the Jack Benny Program. Jack Benny often used her spoonerisms for comedic material in later shows.

For example, in the October 27, 1946 episode in a skit that takes place in a lunchroom, she stated: “I’ll have a chiss swease [Swiss cheese] sandwich.” This blunder was referred to in various ways for many years after this episode to the delight of long-term fans.

In another example, toward the end of the December 3, 1950 episode, which involved a skit in which Jack had hit a car being worked on in a garage, she asked Jack, “How could you possibly hit a car when it was up on the grass reek [grease rack]?” In a program soon after, a character, a police chief, was describing a call regarding two skunks fighting on a front lawn. The chief ended the story with, “And let me tell you, when they were done, did that grass reek!”

On August 10, 1931, announcer Harry von Zell uttered one of the most famous spoonerisms during a live radio program commemorating President Herbert Hoover’s birthday. At the end of a 20-minute introduction, he announced: “Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States, Hoobert Heever.”

Spoonerisms are a type of metathesis (pronounced “meh-TAH-thih-sis” from the Greek metatithenai “change of position”; not to be confused with metastasis [i.e., spread of a disease such as cancer from its initial site to one or more sites]). A metathesis is the transposition of sounds or letters between two words in a phrase (i.e., spoonerism) or within a word. The following are some examples of the latter type of metathesis (i.e., transposition of sounds or letters within a word).

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Transposition of two sounds within a word:

• Aks for “ask”
The original pronunciation was “aks,” which was derived from Old English acsian; some English dialects maintain the older pronunciation of “aks” for “ask.”
• Perty for “pretty”
• Perscription for “prescription”
• Asteriks for “asterisk”
• Feburary for “February”
• Relator for “realtor”

Transposition of letters within a word:
• Anemone/anenome
An anemone can refer to a flowering plant in the buttercup family or the sea anemone, a marine animal that was named after the flowering plant because of its vibrant flower-like appearance. Anenome is not a word.
• Calvary/cavalry
Calvary is the place where Jesus Christ was crucified; cavalry is a group of soldiers who fight on horseback.
• Converse/conserve
Converse means “to speak with”; conserve means “to save.”
• Foliage/foilage
The spelling “foilage” is obsolete but was the original spelling in Middle English; through the influence of Latin in which folium means “leaf,” foilage became foliage.
• Observe/obverse
Observe means “to watch something carefully”; obverse means “the counterpart of something.”
• Relevant/revelant
Relevant means that something is closely connected or appropriate to a current subject. Revelant is not a word.

Everyone is subject to an occasional unintentional spoonerism when speaking. When they occur, a little humor can help a speaker recover from the gaffe. However, spoonerisms can be more frequent in people with dyslexia, a disorder in which a person has difficulty learning to read words and letters and can involve problems identifying speech sounds (e.g., difficulty learning new words; difficulty finding the right word).1 If you are prone to spoonerisms when speaking, the following tips may help to reduce them:

  • Much like stuttering, which can worsen when a person is anxious or stressed, spoonerisms can be a symptom of anxiety and/or stress. Reducing stress and using calming techniques (e.g., relaxed breathing) can help reduce spoonerisms.
  • When ready to speak, pause before speaking (i.e., take a deep breath first and exhale slowly before speaking). This action gives you a moment to shift to "speaking mode" rather than feeling hurried to speak immediately.
  • Speak at a slower pace. When speaking slower, your focus will be more on conveying your message rather than worrying, "will I mess up?"
  • If anxiety is a substantial problem, a professional (e.g., anxiety disorder therapist, coach) may be helpful in providing techniques to reduce anxiety.
  • If you are prone to frequent spoonerisms and seem to have other difficulties with language (e.g., reading difficulties, difficulty learning new words), you may want to consider being assessed for dyslexia. Treatment for dyslexia may not necessarily reduce spoonerisms but it may help with other language difficulties.


Reference

  1. Gallagher AM, Laxon V, Armstrong E, Frith U. Phonological difficulties in high-functioning dyslexics. Reading and Writing 1996;8:499-509.


Interesting notes:

a Francois Rabelais’, in addition to being a writer (especially satire), was a physician, humanist, monk, and Greek scholar. His use of spoonerisms and puns was often considered “bawdy.”

b An antistrophe is the second part of an ode (i.e., a three-part Grecian poem) that contrasts in theme with the preceding part, the strophe (from the Greek strofi, meaning “stanza”). As a literary device in French writing, an antistrophe is a reverse argument in a dialogue.


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