I am Sir Oracle,
And when I ope my lips, let no dog bark!
—Gratiano, from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, entered in the Stationers’ Register on this day in 1598
Which of us has not felt in his heart a half-warmed fish?
July 22, 1844: William Spooner was born on this day in 1844. The only full-length biography of Spooner, a 1977 study by William Hayter, gives just ten pages to purported Spoonerisms such as the above, most of the book a determined attempt to recognize Spooner as one of Oxford’s most respected dons rather than its “great metaphasiarch” (Punch magazine). Spooner did say “in a dark, glassy,” and he apparently informed one wedding couple that they were now “loifully jawned in holy matrimony,” but most of the apocryphal Spoonerisms are unreliable. Most seem to be undergraduate concoctions, the lads taking aim at an easy target. “The Spoo,” as they called him, had a “mild, buttery, high-pitched, slightly lisping” voice; he was also an albino, and very short, his large head and blinking eyes bending over his small body in a manner that reminded more than a few of a whitish-pink shrimp.
But Spooner was given to odd misstatements and miscomprehensions. To a colleague, Stanley Casson: “Do come to dinner tonight, to meet our new Fellow, Casson.” “But Warden, I am Casson.” “Never mind, come all the same.” To an undergraduate, while handing him a cup of tea instead of the customary port: “People warned me that if I gave up port I should be less amusing, but I do not find myself any less amusing than I was before.” Perhaps more interesting that the stories of Spooner’s verbal confusions are the accounts of the physical equivalent. The most famous of these is described by the historian A. J. Toynbee:
The acted spoonerism was witnessed by my mother’s old friend Eleanor Jourdain. At a dinner party in Oxford, she saw Dr Spooner upset a salt-cellar and then reach for a decanter of claret. He then poured claret on the salt, drop by drop, till he had produced the little purple mound which would have been the end-product if he had spilled claret on the table-cloth and had then cast a heap of salt on the pool to absorb it.