Word Origins: Rev. William Archibald Spooner and Spoonerisms

About the history and biography of Reverend Archibald Spooner and the origin of the word Spoonerism.

SPOONERISM ('spu-ne-riz-em) n. A transposition of usu. Initial sounds of 2 or more words (as in tons of soil for sons of toil).

The Rev. William Archibald Spooner, dean and later warden of New College, Oxford, was a learned man, but not spell woken, or well spoken, that is. "We all know what it is to have a half-warmed fish inside us," he once told an audience, meaning to say "half-formed wish." On another occasion he advised his congregation that the next hymn would be "Kinkering Congs Their Titles Take," instead of "Conquering Kings Their Titles Take," and he is said to have explained to listeners one time that "the Lord is a shoving leopard." Spooner's slips occurred both in church, where he once remarked to a lady, "Mardon me Padom, this pie is occupied, allow me to sew you to another sheet," and told a nervous bridegroom that "it is kisstomery to cuss the bride," and in his classes, where he chided one student with "You hissed my mystery lecture," and dismissed another with "You have deliberately tasted 2 worms and can leave Oxford by the town drain!" Other mistakes attributed to him are "The cat popped on its drawers," for "the cat dropped on its paws"; "one swell foop," for "one fell swoop"; "sporn rim hectacles," for "horn rim spectacles"; "a well-boiled icicle," for "a well-oiled bicycle"; "selling smalts," for "smelling salts"; "tons of soil," for "sons of toil"; "blushing crow," for "crushing blow"; "Is the bean dizzy?" for "the Assissination of Sassero," for a Roman history lecture on "the Assassination of Cicero." Spooner lived 86 years, and committed many "spoonerisms" in public, too. "When the boys come back from France, we'll have the hags flung out!" the canon told a gathering of patriots during W.W. I, and Queen Victoria once became "our queer old dean," instead of "our dear old Queen." Nobody knows how many of these spoonerisms were really made by Spooner, but they were among the many attributed to him. Spooner was an albino, his metathetical troubles probably due to nervousness and poor eyesight resulting from his condition. The scientific name for his speech affliction is "metathesis," the accidental transposition of letters or syllables in the words of a sentence, the process known long before Spooner made it so popular that his slips of the tongue and eye were widely imitated. Some of the best spoonerisms therefore aren't really spoonerisms at all, being carefully devised and far from accidental.

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