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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.[1][2] It is also known as a marrowsky, after a Polish count who suffered from the same impediment.[3] While spoonerisms are commonly heard as slips of the tongue resulting from unintentionally getting one's words in a tangle, they can also be used intentionally as a play on words. In some cultures, spoonerisms are used as a rhyme form used in poetry, such as German Schüttelreime. Spoonerisms are commonly used intentionally in humor, especially drunk humor.

Linguist Michael Erard argues that these particular verbal blunders were associated with Spooner due to two primary sociocultural influences of his time, one having to do with class, the other science: "Spooner came along at a time when the archetype of the blunderer was changing from someone who blundered deliberately to someone who did so accidentally."[4] Before Spooner's association with the phenomenon, it was mostly associated with literary or theatrical portrayals of underclass individuals. Erard relates the shift (from deliberate mistakes to accidental blunders) to the emerging complexity of technological systems like railroads, systems in which accidents could cause greater trauma.[5] In this way, he argues, "Reverend Spooner embodies an emerging figure of modernity as much as an icon of verbal blundering: the educated, upstanding citizen who suffered inexplicable accidents in public."[4]



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[1] that "The Kinquering Congs Their Titles Take" (in reference to a hymn)[6] 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.[7] 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".[8] They are:

  • "Three cheers for our queer old dean!" (dear old queen, 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 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)[8]

A newspaper column[2] attributes this additional example to Spooner: "A nosey little cook." (cozy little nook).

Popular use

In modern terms, "spoonerism" generally refers to any changing of sounds in this manner.

  • One 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), "for rice cake" (for for Christ's sake), and "shake a tit" (itself a risqué phrase, for take a shit) are all common examples of these kinds of spoonerisms.
  • In music, there have been several rock albums called Cunning Stunts. Some other music albums containing a spoonerism are Punk in Drublic and Liberal Animation by NOFX. Christian metalcore band The Devil Wears Prada has a song titled "Don't Dink and Drance" on their 2007 album, Plagues.
  • In music, in his song "No Ceilings," rapper Lil Wayne sings "Swagger just dumb call it Sarah Palin, if you n-ggas fly then I must be para-sailing."
  • On his television series the British disc jockey and comedian Kenny Everett frequently portrayed a movie starlet of rather questionable morals, and over-familiarity with the casting couch called 'Cupid Stunt'.
  • The British radio announcer McDonald Hobley famously introduced the politician Sir Stafford Cripps as Sir 'Stifford Crapps'.
  • An out-take from the detective series Cagney and Lacey featured Sharon Gless referring to a 'comprinter pute-out'.
  • British comedian and actor Ronnie Barker produced a sketch called "the funeral of Dr Spooner" in which the minister delivers the eulogy entirely in spoonerisms.
  • American Comedian George Carlin once quipped, "Don't sweat the petty things and don't pet the sweaty things."


The Capitol Steps, a political satire group, use spoonerisms in a segment of their show called "Lirty Dies and Scicious Vandals".

In a deliberate spoonerism, Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson once stated, "Speaking as a Christian, I find the Apostle Paul appealing and the apostle Peale appalling" (in reference to Norman Vincent Peale, who had opposed his candidacy).[9]

Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann infamously misrepresented the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act signed into law by President Herbert Hoover as Hoot-Smalley tariffs which she claimed were the work of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Administration.[10]

Twisted tales

Colonel Lemuel Q. Stoopnagle, the stage name of F. Chase Taylor, was the star of a 1930s radio program Stoopnagle and Budd who used spoonerisms in his show and in 1945 published a book, My Tale is Twisted, consisting of forty-four "spoonerized" versions of well-known children's stories. Subtitled "Wart Pun: Aysop's Feebles" and "Tart Pooh: Tairy and Other Fales", these included such tales as "Beeping Sleauty" for "Sleeping Beauty". The book was republished in 2001 by Stone and Scott Publishers as Stoopnagle's Tale is Twisted.[11]

Archie Campbell of the television show Hee Haw was also well known for telling twisted tales, the most famous of which being the story of RinderCella. All of Campbell's spoonerism routines borrowed heavily from Colonel Stoopnagle.

Kniferism and forkerism

As complements to spoonerism, Douglas Hofstadter used the nonce terms kniferism and forkerism to refer to interchanging the nuclei and codas, respectively, of syllables (spoonerism then being reserved for exchange of the onsets). Examples of so-called kniferisms include a British television newsreader once referring to the police at a crime scene removing a 'hypodeemic nerdle'; a television announcer once saying that "All the world was thrilled by the marriage of the Duck and Doochess of Windsor"[12] and that word regarding an impending presidential veto had come from "a high White Horse souse" (instead of "a high White House source");[13] and during a live broadcast in 1931, radio presenter Harry von Zell accidentally mispronouncing US President Herbert Hoover's name, "Hoobert Heever."[12][14] Usage of these new terms has been limited; many sources count any syllable exchange as a spoonerism, regardless of location.[15][16]

See also


  1. ^ a b "Names make news". Time. 1928-10-29.,9171,928998,00.html?iid=chix-sphere. Retrieved 2008-09-20. 
  2. ^ a b "Spoonerism Message Lost in Translation". Toledo Blade. 1980-11-03.,6750556. 
  3. ^ Chambers Dictionary 1993 ISBN 0 550 10255 8
  4. ^ a b Erard, Michael (2007). Um: Slips Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean. Pantheon. p. 25. 
  5. ^ Erard, Michael (2007). Um: Slips Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean. Pantheon. p. 26. 
  6. ^ Bartlett, John (1992) [1855]. Justin Kaplan. ed. Bartlett's Familiar Quotations (16th ed.). Little, Brown and Company. pp. 533. ISBN 0316082775. 
  7. ^ Quinion, Michael (2007-07-28). "Spoonerism". World Wide Words. Retrieved 2008-09-19. 
  8. ^ a b Lederer, Richard (1988). Get Thee to a Punnery. Charleston, South Carolina: Wyrick & Co.. pp. 137–148. 
  9. ^ Hoekstra, Dave. "A former president's gag order; Ford's symposium examines humor in the Oval Office", Chicago Sun-Times, Sept. 28, 1986, pg. 22. Retrieved from Proquest Newspapers on Sept. 17, 2007.
  10. ^ Rep. Bachmann (R-MN) blames FDR for "Hoot-Smalley" Tariffs, April 27, 2009, from, accessed 2009-05-10.
  11. ^ "Stoopnagle's Tale is Twisted, by Ken James". Retrieved 3 November 2008. 
  12. ^ a b "Phonemic and Analogic Lapses in Radio and Television Speech". American Speech (Duke University Press) 31 (4): 252–263. (Dec., 1956). Retrieved 2009-02-18. 
  13. ^ "Recent titles". English Today (Cambridge University Press) 9 (1): 56–60. Jan 1993. doi:doi:10.1017/S0266078400006982. Retrieved 2009-02-18. 
  14. ^ " Harry von Zell and Hoobert Heever". Retrieved 2 Feb 2009. 
  15. ^ "spoonerism definition". Retrieved 2 Feb 2009. 
  16. ^ "spoonerism: Definition from". Retrieved 2 Feb 2009. 

External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

A spoonerism is a play on words in which corresponding consonants, vowels, or morphemes are switched, named after the Reverend William Archibald Spooner, Warden of New College, Oxford, who was notoriously prone to this tendency. Many "spoonerisms" attributed to Spooner are believed to have actually been made up by Oxford students.



  • Sir, you have tasted two whole worms; you have hissed all my mystery lectures and been caught fighting a liar in the quad; you will leave Oxford by the next town drain. (Wasted two whole terms, Missed all my History lectures, caught Lighting a fire, and by the next down train...respectively)
    • Attributed to Spooner (Cohen & Cohen, [1960] 1979)
  • Let us drink to the Queer old dean.
    • Attributed to Spooner (Cohen & Cohen, [1960] 1979)


  • Ring Kitchard. But surely that's a Spoonerism, not an anagram.
  • Madam, you are occupewing the wrong pie!
    • Allegedly Spooner, to a woman in the wrong seat in church
  • The Lord is a shoving leopard.
    • Allegedly Spooner
  • There's nothing so fine as a well-boiled icicle.
    • Allegedly Spooner
  • You tons of soil.
    • Opening words of a speech at a Labour meeting.


Cohen, J.M.; Cohen, M.J. (1979) [1960]. The Penguin Dictionary of Quotations. Penguin. ISBN 0-1405-1016-8.  

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