A spoonerism is an error in speech or deliberate play on words in which corresponding consonants, vowels, or morphemes are switched (see metathesis). It is named after the Reverend William Archibald Spooner (1844–1930), Warden of New College, Oxford, who was notoriously prone to this tendency.
While spoonerisms are commonly heard as slips of the tongue resulting from unintentionally getting one's words in a tangle, they are often used intentionally as a play on words.
Most of the quotations attributed to Spooner are apocryphal
; The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations
(3rd edition, 1979) lists only one substantiated spoonerism: "The weight of rages will press hard upon the employer." Spooner claimed that "The Kinquering Congs Their Titles Take" (in reference to a hymn) was his sole spoonerism. Most spoonerisms were probably never uttered by William Spooner himself, but rather made up by colleagues and students as a pastime. Richard Lederer
, calling "Kinkering Kongs their Titles Take" (with an alternate spelling) one of the "few" authenticated Spoonerisms, dates it to 1879, and gives nine examples "attributed to Spooner, most of them spuriously". They are:
- "Three cheers for our queer old dean!" (referring to Queen Victoria)
- "Is it kisstomary to cuss the bride?" (customary to kiss)
- "The Lord is a shoving leopard." (a loving shepherd)
- "A blushing crow." (crushing blow)
- "A well-boiled icicle" (well-oiled bicycle)
- "You were fighting a liar in the quadrangle." (lighting a fire)
- "Is the bean dizzy?" (dean busy)
- "Someone is occupewing my pie. Please sew me to another sheet." (occupying my pew...show me to another seat)
- "You have hissed all my mystery lectures. You have tasted a whole worm. Please leave Oxford on the next town drain." (missed...history, wasted...term, down train)
In modern terms, a spoonerism is any changing of sounds in this manner. While simple enough to do, a clever spoonerism is one that results in a funny phrase or sentence. "Flutterby" is an oft-cited example of a spoonerism that has not lost its original meaning; in fact, it is sometimes said, incorrectly, that the insect was originally called a flutterby
(which seems more sensible than butterfly
), which Spooner-converted into the normal form. A well-known example is "I'd rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy" (variously attributed to W. C. Fields
, Tom Waits
, and most commonly Dorothy Parker
), which not only shifts the beginning sounds of the word lobotomy, but the entire phrase "frontal lobotomy". The preceding phrase was further developed by Dean Martin who said, "I would rather have a FREE bottle in front of me than a PRE-frontal lobotomy.
Another modern use of spoonerisms is the children's book Runny Babbit: A Billy Sook, which is the last children's book by Shel Silverstein.
In a situation where profanity is unsuitable, a spoonerism is sometimes used to tone down the intensity of the expression or just to bend the rules. "Bass ackwards" (for ass backwards), "nucking futs" (for fucking nuts), and "shake a tit" (itself a risque phrase, for take a shit) are all common examples of these kinds of spoonerisms. For example, there have been rock albums called Cunning Stunts.
The Capitol Steps, a political satire group, use spoonerisms in a segment of their show called "Lirty Dies and Scicious Vandals".
American Country-Western singer/comedian Archie Campbell is famous for his stories of RinderCella (Cinderella), in which the princess "slopped her dripper" (dropped her slipper), from a similar story told by an amateur comedian in the 1970s on The Gong Show, in which she "sloshed her lipper."
A well-worn insult in speeches of the college debating society type is to describe an opponent as "the sort of person Reverend Spooner would have described as 'a shining wit'(a whining shit)".
Kniferism and forkerism
uses the nonce terms kniferism
to refer to interchanging the nuclei
, respectively, of syllables
. (Example: a British television newsreader who, in a story about a crime scene, referred to the police removing a 'hypodeemic nerdle'.) Spoonerisms exchange the onsets
Another example is an incident that happened to veteran newscaster (and Timex watch pitchman) John Cameron Swayze. During an interview on The Mike Douglas Show, he stated that on a radio show, he was making reference to a fellow journalist as a "noted woman columnist" but accidentally said "noted woolen communist".
During a live broadcast in 1931, radio presenter Harry von Zell accidentally mispronounced the then US President's name as "Hoobert Heever".
In other languages
term for spoonerism is "bakke snagvendt", which is itself a spoonerism of "snakke bagvendt" (i.e., talk backwards). The term is derived from a song by the puppet stars of the children's television show Kaj og Andrea
. The song itself contains mainly spoonerisms based on the swapping around of one or two phonemes
rather than syllables
term for spoonerism is "dromaaien", which is itself a spoonerism of "omdraaien" (i.e., to turn around).
Spoonerisms in Dutch
are made in the same manner as in English. Examples:
- met vereende krachten ("with joined forces") → met verkrachte eenden ("with raped ducks")
- tot de dood ons scheidt ("until death do us part") → tot de schijt ons doodt ("until the shit kills us")
- ik heb het onderspit gedolven ("I suffered a defeat") → ik heb den Dolf ondergespit ("I have buried Adolf")
- een beetje scheef ("a bit crooked") → een scheetje beef ("a fart-quiver")
In the Philippines, a common spoonerism is the local tongue twister; pitumpu't pitong puting tupa
(seventy-seven white sheep). But due to the fast pronunciation, the t and p of the word tupa
(sheep) is interchanged, pronouncing the word puta
, a Spanish loanword that means "prostitute".
(literal translation 'word transformations' does not capture the spoonerism hidden in the original Finnish compound — sananmuunnokset
, which roughly means dick-gettings
) are mainly used in jokes. Before transformation a Finnish spoonerism is something innocent and after transformation something obscene. A Finnish spoonerism is usually performed by telling the innocent version and letting the listener figure out the outcome. One example would be hillitön kuppi
), which can be changed into kulliton hippi
The French contrepèterie
is also facilitated by a strong Rabelaisian
tradition for coarse, if witty, humor. Contrepéteurs excel in finding lewd humor in seemingly innocuous phrases. According to French tradition — and unlike the examples provided below — one should never utter nor write the second part of a spoonerism. Only the first part should be said, leaving readers or listeners trying hard to find the second funny part. Actually giving the solution of a spoonerism is considered distasteful.
This is somewhat similar to certain English language jokes involving spoonerisms, in which one asks questions like "What is the difference between a rooster and a lawyer?" and provides only the non-spoonerised part of the answer ("One clucks defiance..."), leaving the usually-vulgar punch-line ("...the other fucks the clients") for the listener to come up with, and is far more subtle without the explicit joke formulation.
A famous example is the weekly column "Sur l'Album de la Comtesse" in the French weekly satirical journal Le Canard Enchaîné.
For example, Les nouilles cuisent au jus de cane : les couilles nuisent au cul de Jeanne (which translates roughly as, the noodles are cooking in a duck broth: the balls hurt Jane's ass). The s and l in jus and cul are silent in French.
One from French comedian Coluche: Quand les Nippons bougent, la Chine se dresse : quand les nichons bougent, la pine se dresse (which translates as, when the Japanese stir, China reacts : when the boobs jiggle, the wood rises).
Similarly, the French word for a tumble dryer, un sèche-linge, could give rise to a spoonerism un lèche-singe, which would mean a person who licks monkeys.
A French radio announcer was reputed to say, instead of Les populations immenses du Cap (the immense population of Cap-Haïtien): Les copulations immenses du Pape. (The Pope's immense copulations).
The German Schüttelreim
('shake rhyme') is a rhyme where the initial consonants (or even the following vowels) of the last two stressed syllables are exchanged with one another. For example, Es klapperte die Klapperschlang',
— bis ihre Klapper schlapper klang.
(by Heinz Erhardt
) — The rattlesnake rattled, until its rattles sounded flabbier.
A popular spoonerism in German derives from the German adaptation of the television show Saturday Night Live (German Title: RTL Samstag Nacht). A series of sketches were aired that had the title Kentucky schreit ficken. This spoonerism of Kentucky Fried Chicken means: Kentucky yells fuck. This was a parody on television ads for McDonald's that used spoonerisms.
(Note that ficken has non-profane meanings as well, but these are generally archaic or confined to the building trades.)
In Greek, when someone has accidentally committed spoonerism (Σαρδάμ in Greek), it's common to apologize by saying "Γλώσσεψα τη μπέρδα μου", which is in fact a spoonerism for "Μπέρδεψα τη γλώσσα μου". It roughly translates to saying "I tongued my slip" instead of "I slipped my tongue". The word sardam is derived from a person named Madras [Μαδράς], who was, like Spooner, prone to verbal mistakes.
Hebrew speakers sometimes make fun of word pairs, where the two words are somehow similar, by flipping letters between the two to produce a pair of meaningless words, but such that the listener can easily figure the original meaning. Examples: First letter flipping — "Zahag Nahir" (instead of "Nahag Zahir" (נהג זהיר) meaning "Careful driver") and "Chipor Tzirbena" (actually creating a cleaner form of the foul "Tzipor Chirbena" (ציפור חירבנה) meaning "A bird has defecated"). Two letter flip — "Kesh VaChetzet" (instead of "Chetz VaKeshet" (חץ וקשת) meaning "An arrow and a bow"). Last letter flip — "Chatzi Goom Aroof" (instead of "Chatzi Goof Aroom" (חצי גוף ערום) meaning "Half body is naked").
The name of the Israeli hip-hop band "Hadag Nachash (or Nahash)" is a spoonerism. The group's name literally means "The Snake Fish" (הדג נחש — "Ha" meaning "the", "Dag" meaning "fish", and "Nachash" meaning "snake"). It is also, however, a Hebrew spoonerism. In Israel, people who have only recently gotten their driver's licence place a tag on their back window with the words: "Nahag Chadash" (נהג חדש — "new driver"). There is also a joke, in which a Kibbutz volunteer tells in bad Hebrew that his job there is "Lezayen Metim" (לזיין מתים) meaning "To fuck dead people," instead of "Lemayen Zeytim" (למיין זיתים) meaning "To sort olives."
The Hungarian kecskerím
) is a rhyming form where there are two rhyming words in each line, and in the second line, the starting letters of the rhyming words are exchanged, like "Ne ülj le a k
andúr, / Megkarmol egy p
andúr!" (Don't sit on the stone, policeman, as a naked tomcat will scratch you!). Another example of Hungarian spoonerism is creating word pairs like "V
esztése" (Vali's development) and "L
esztése" (Lali's beheading). These are often referred to as "bolvnyetlés" (from "nyelvbotlás", with the suffix adjusted for correct declension), which roughly translates to "tip of the slung".
the closest word to spoonerism is "stafarugl", a jumble of letters. This word is more commonly used for anagrams. One humorous Icelandic spoonerism is about buying popcorn and a Coca Cola drink: "Mig langar að fá kokk og póp, takk fyrir". The humour of this statement is most fully appreciated with an understanding of both Icelandic and English.
Jokes based on spoonerisms are quite popular in Polish
; they are collectively called Gra półsłówek
('A play with monosyllables'). They often require a bit of imagination in order to find out which letters need to be changed to get a new meaning. Very often the new meaning is more or less rude. The game's name itself is a spoonerism — switching the bolded letters results in Sra półgłówek
, which means 'A half-dumb is shitting'. Some Polish sports commentators are also well-known for their spoonerisms, made unwittingly in the heat of the action.
Examples of popular jokes based on spoonerism:
Bój w hucie
(battle in a steel mill) — Chuj w bucie
(dick in a shoe);
(Wait, Halina!) — Chuj Stalina
Serbian, Bosnian, or Croatian
Spoonerisms are easy to construct in Serbian language
, Bosnian language
, or Croatian language
, since the relationship between the alphabet and the phoneme system is relatively close. The new meanings are often rude. Example: pita od višanja
('a cherry pie') turns into vita od pišanja
('she went slim by pissing').
Sentences of comparison (see: Swedish) can also be heard, such as Bolje da ti se zavrti u glavi nego da ti se zaglavi u vrtu
('It is better to have a vertigo than to have your thing stuck in the garden'), or Bolje da čovek priča o kolima, nego da o čoveku kolaju priče
(roughly It is better when a man is talking about cars, than when stories are circulating about the man
, a Spoonerism involving three words rather than two).
, a spoonerism is usually used as a euphemism
. For example, "Una cabra de bolones" instead of "Una bola de cabrones" ("a granite goat" instead of "a bunch of assholes").
When an unintentional spoonerism is committed, it is common to say "Se me lenguó la traba (My stuck got tongued)," a spoonerism for "Se me trabó la lengua" (My tongue got stuck). In Argentina, schoolchildren speak of the wars of the Medes and the Persians as "los pedos y los mersas" (the farts and the riffraff) instead of the correct "medos y persas". Another common but unintentional spoonerism among Spanish speakers learning English is to call a "kitchen" a "chicken" (switching the "k" and "ch" sounds).
Similar jokes are told in Swedish
, conventionally stating which one of two similar-sounding options the average person would prefer, as in: Bättre en back läsk i hallen än ett läskigt hack i ballen.
meaning "Rather a crate of sodas in the hall than a horrible hack to the balls."
Other examples include Bättre att borsta katten än att kasta bort den
("Better to brush the cat than throw it away") and Bättre att frysa i tältet än att tälta i frysen
("Better to freeze in your tent than tent in your freezer."), Bättre att pissa i en stupränna än att stupa i en pissränna
("It's better to piss in a rain gutter than to fall in a urinal trough") and Hellre en rövare i Polen än en påle i röven
("Rather a robber in Poland than a pole in the ass"). Another example is Hellre en Daim i handen än en hand i dajmen
("Rather a Daim
in your hand than a hand up your ass").
The phenomenon is commonly referred to as bala taklänges or baka pratlänges, which translates into "beaking spackwards."
Spoonerisms are the basis for many jokes, riddles, and other word play. Vietnamese, being a language with many monosyllabic words, is especially suited to this type of word play. Spoonerisms of polysyllabic words often cannot significantly change the words' meanings, and thus are easily deciphered. As a result, their value for word play is severely limited. Spoonerisms of monosyllabic words, however, can completely alter the meaning of an entire sentence. In Vietnamese, there exist many complex jokes and riddles involving the interchange of initial sounds, vowels, or even tones over multiple steps, with each intermediate step being a valid, clever construction.