Ever Get Your Words Mixed Up? Then Hip Your Tat To Spooner

Metathephilogists of the English-speaking world, how your beds.

Now that your heads are bowed, let us observe with due reverence the 150th anniversary of the birth of the eponymous master of the verbal somersault, the Rev. William Archibald Spooner. He left a legacy of laughter.

He also gave the dictionary a new entry: spoonerism. The very word brings a smile. It refers, of course, to the linguistic flip-flops that turn "a well-oiled bicycle" into "a well-boiled icicle" and other ludicrous ways speakers of English get their mix all talked up.

Any student who has discoursed upon the works of those well-known poets Kelly and Sheets has committed a spoonerism. Radio announcer Harry Von Zell did so when he introduced the president as Hoobert Heever. So did announcer Lowell Thomas when he referred to Sir Stafford Cripps, a British minister, as Sir Stifford Craps.

Relax. Everybody does it. Tips of the slung are as old as spoken language. But, thanks to Spooner, they are not looked upon as embarrassing babblings of a nitwit, but merely whimsical lapses. Spooner was no featherbrain. In fact, his brain was so nimble his tongue couldn't keep up.


The ancient Greeks had a word for this type of impediment: metathesis. It means to transpose, switch things around. Is not spoonerism a more playful word? Means the same thing.

If the first word of this article - metathephilogist - is unfamiliar, it should be. It is brand-new, , rear deeder. It was coined (with the benediction and connivance of Ross Eckler, editor of Word Ways magazine) on the very day of Spooner's birth, July 22, as a sesquicentennial nosegay to the master. Spooner might well have wronged it red.

Metathephilogist means, or is intended to mean, a lover of spoonerisms.

Aren't we all.

One of America's most dedicated metathephilogists is Richard Lederer, an author, lecturer and English teacher in Concord, N.H. Asked for an appropriate anniversary comment, he obliged:

"Spooner set out to be a bird-watcher and ended up a word botcher."

True. But we know a little more than that about William Archibald Spooner. He was born in 1844 in London and became, instead of a bird-watcher, an Anglican priest and scholar.

During a 60-year association with Oxford University, he lectured in history, philosophy and divinity, and produced a respected edition of Tacitus. From 1876 to 1889 he served as dean of New College and from 1903 to 1924 as warden, or president.

His reputation was that of a genial, kindly, hospitable man. He seems also to have been somewhat of an absent-minded professor, although he might have simply been concealing a wry drit. He once invited a faculty member to tea "to welcome our new archaeology fellow."

"But, sir," the man replied, "I am our new archaeology fellow."

"Never mind," Spooner said. "Come all the same."

After a Sunday service, he turned back to the pulpit and informed his student audience: "In the sermon I have just preached, whenever I said Aristotle I meant St. Paul."

Spooner was a small man with a pink face, poor eyesight and a head too large for his body. He was an albino. Some wondered whether that might have had something to do with his tendency to get words and sounds crossed up.

This could happen at any time, but especially when poor Warden Spooner was agitated. As when he reprimanded one student for "fighting a liar in the quadrangle" and another who "hissed my mystery lecture." To the latter he added in disgust, "You have tasted two worms."

Patriotic fervor excited Spooner as well. He raised this toast to Her Highness Victoria: "Three cheers for our queer old dean!" During World War I he reassured his students, "When our boys come home from France, we will have the hags flung out." And he lionized Britain's farmers as "noble tons of soil."

His goofs at chapel were legendary. "Yes," he once intoned, "Our Lord is a shoving leopard." He quoted 1 Corinthians as, "Now we see through a dark, glassly."

Officiating at a wedding ceremony, Spooner prompted a hesitant bridegroom, "Son, now it is kisstomary to cuss the bride." And to a stranger seated in the wrong place: "I believe you're occupewing my pie. May I sew you to another sheet?"


Spooner's position of respect and authority made his slips seem to his students all the more comical. Man's lofty ambitions deflated by the weakness of the flesh have ever been a source of laughter, like Hamlet getting the hiccups.

So of course the students took to inventing their own spoonerisms and attributing them to the professor. For that reason the authenticity of some of his handed-down utterances is questionable. For instance, "a scoop of boy trouts" for "a troop of Boy Scouts" seems contrived.

Two years before his death in 1930 at age 86, he told an interviewer he could recall only one of his trademark fluffs. It was the one, well recorded, that he made when he announced the hymn: "Kinkering Congs Their Titles Take." A lulu. He meant "Conquering Kings." According to usage experts, "spoonerism" began showing up in print as early as 1885, when Spooner was 41.

He obviously made many. Once when a group of students clamored outside his window for him to make a speech, he called down: "You don't want to hear a speech, you just want me to say one of those . . . things."

Before Spooner won the world metathesis title, a spoonerism was called a marrowsky. It supposedly derives from the name of Polish Count Joseph Boruwlaski, who had the same speech affliction. That word, marrowsky, was first recorded in 1863.

But English is the fertile soil of spoonerisms. As Richard Lederer points out, spoonerisms rely mostly on rhyme. Because English has more than three times more words than any other language - 616,500 and growing at 450 a year - there is more opportunity for slip-ups that rhyme and even sort of make sense.

"Spooner," says Lederer, "gave us tinglish errors and English terrors at the same time."