Chapter 1: The Secrets of Reverend Spooner
If the world of verbal blunders were the night
sky, the Reverend William Archibald Spooner of Oxford University could play the role of the North Star.
Spooner, who was born in 1844, was famous for verbal blundering so incorrigible that his exploits have been
immortalized in poems and songs and, most enduringly, by lending his name to a type of slip of the tongue he
was unusually prone to make. In the spoonerism, sounds from two words are exchanged or reversed, resulting
in a phrase that is inappropriate for the setting. For Spooner, these embarrassments ranged from wild to
mild. Toasting Queen Victoria at dinner, Spooner said, “Give three cheers for our queer old
dean,” and he greeted a group of farmers as “noble tons of soil.” There was the time he
cautioned young missionaries against having “a half-warmed fish in their hearts.” He described
Cambridge in the winter as “a bloody meek place.” Once Spooner berated a student for
“fighting a liar in the quadrangle.” “You have hissed all my mystery lectures,” he
reportedly said. “In fact, you have tasted two whole worms and you must leave Oxford this afternoon by
the next town drain.” A spoonerism can also involve the reversal of two words, as in “Courage to
blow the bears of life,” or, when saying good-bye to someone, “Must you stay, can’t you
Undergraduates at Oxford University were playfully fond of Spooner, whom they nicknamed
“the Spoo.” They also coined the term “spoonerism” around 1885, after Spooner had
been a fellow at NewCollege for almost twenty years. By 1892, his reputation for absentmindedness was well
known; students came to New College expecting to hear a spoonerism. “Well, I’ve been up here for
four years, and never heard the Spoo make a spoonerism before, and now he makes a damned rotten one at the
last minute,” wrote one student. (Spooner had assured students that experience would teach them that
“the weight of rages will press harder and harder upon the employer.”) Spooner himself knew of
his public image. Privately he referred to his “transpositions of thought.” At the end of a
speech he once gave to a group of alumni, he said, “And now I suppose I’d better sit down, or I
might be saying—er—one of those things.” The scientist Julian Huxley (a New College fellow
under Spooner for six years), who was present at the scene, said that the audience reacted with
“perhaps the greatest applause he ever got.”
The British humor magazine Punch
called Spooner “Oxford’s great metaphasiarch.” Spooner’s reputation was also
carried beyond Oxford and even out of England by newspapers’ joke columns, funny pages, and
“quips and quirks” sections. One example of screwy language from around this time is an 1871
collection by the American writer C. C. Bombaugh, titled The Book of Blunders. Though it didn’t
mention Spooner, Bombaugh’s book promised a grab bag anthology of “Hibernicisms, bulls that are
not Irish and typographic errors.” In addition to slips of the printing press, Bombaugh included slips
of the telegraph. A French cleric was once greeted at the train station by a funeral bier—intended for
him—because the telegraph operator had mistaken Père Ligier et moi (Father Ligier and I)
for Père Ligier est mort (Father Ligier is dead). One New Yorker ordered flowers from a florist
in Philadelphia, telegraphing a need for “two hand bouquets,” which the telegraph clerk printed
as “two hund. bouquets.” When the New Yorker refused to pay for 198 unwanted bouquets, the
florist sued him and lost. Then the florist sued the telegraph company and (according to Bombaugh) won. Such
were the legal liabilities of a verbal blunder. On the face of it, slurs against the Irish and accidents of
typography seem to have little in common. Yet the opportunity to mock and laugh about either one neutralized
the perceived threats of immigrants and technological change.
The public’s taste for
outrageous jabberwocky may have predated Spooner, but his sayings appeared so frequently and widely that the
spoonerism was known around the English-speaking world early in the twentieth century. On a visit to South
Africa in 1912, Spooner said in a letter to his wife that “the Johannesburg paper had an article on my
visit to Johannesburg, but of course they thought me most famous for my Spoonerisms, so I was not greatly
puffed up.” In the 1920s, Spooner encountered an American woman at a concert who asked if he was Dr.
Spooner. As Spooner wrote in his diary, “She replied I was the best known name in America except Mr.
Hudson Shaw [sic] . . . to have known a celebrity, even the author of ‘Spoonerisms’ means
a good deal, tho’ I explained to her that I was better known for my defects than for any
In all, Spooner spent almost sixty years as a member of New College, starting as a
student in 1862, then as a fellow in 1867. To get the position, he had to take an oral exam, which he not
only passed but excelled at. He ascended the ranks until he became warden, a sort of chaplain, from 1903 to
1924. He was married, had seven children, and lived in a sixteen-bedroom mansion staffed with eleven
servants. When he was fifty-two years old, he tried to learn to ride a bicycle. (Or “a well-boiled
icicle,” as he put it.) He was also a revered classics scholar and a respected school leader. He had a
rare gift, said Huxley, “of making people feel that he was deeply interested in their own particular
affairs.” As an albino (“not a full albino with pink eyes,” Huxley remembered, “but
one with very pale blue eyes and white hair just tinged with straw color”), Spooner had horrifically
poor eyesight and could read only with his eyes several inches from the page. He also spoke with a squeaky,
high-pitched voice and said “uh” a lot—perhaps because he was trying to avoid making the
slips he’d become famous for.
“He looked like a rabbit, but he was brave as a
lion,” said the historian Arnold Toynbee. Spooner himself was more modest. “I am, I hope, to
some extent a useful kind of drudge,” he wrote in a letter, “but not a ruler of
Spoonerisms are the comfortable shoes of slips of the tongue: when it comes time to
illustrate the universality speech errors, they’re so familiar and broken in, they always get a laugh.
Far from the funny pages, though, they exhibit properties that have been observed in Latin, Croatian,
German, English, Greek, and French (among other languages). Spoonerisms all work the same way: the
reversed sounds come from the beginnings of the words, rarely at the ends, and very often from the syllable
that carries the stress. Spooner wouldn’t likely have accused a student of “righting a file
in the quadrangle” or announced the hymn in chapel as “conkingering kwers their titles
The scientific name for a spoonerism is an exchange, or in the Greek, metaphasis.
Just as the word “Kleenex” now refers to all paper tissues, “spoonerism” serves as
the blanket term for all exchanges of sounds. In general, consonants are more often transposed than vowels.
As the psychologist Donald MacKay has observed, the sounds reverse across a distance no greater than a
phrase, evidence that a person planning what to say next does so at about a phrase’s span in advance.
Cognitively it would be nearly impossible for Spooner (or anyone else) to say something like, “For
womework tonight you will read and translate the first page of Caesar’s Gallic
We might want to distinguish the spoonerism from the more generic
exchange—certainly there’s a difference between one that results in two actual words (as in,
“May I sew you into a sheet?”) and one that results in nonsense (as in praying that the
congregation would be filled with “fresh veal and new zigor”). The distinction is necessary
because it raises a legitimate linguistic question: do slips of the tongue like these produce real words
more frequently than they result in nonwords? The implication is that if real words (“sew you into a
sheet”) are more frequent, then how our minds produce words becomes a bit clearer. Specifically, it
suggests that in the rapid processes involved in thinking and speaking, a speaker inspects a word as a
whole, not as a sequence of specific sounds. Thus, a word that “looks right” to the
speaker—or, more precisely, to a sort of internal editor or blunder checker—will be cleared for
pronouncing, like planes are cleared for takeoff. In fact, studies have shown that people tend to make more
speech errors that involve individual sounds and produce legitimate words.
 From the Greek word
metaphasis, literally “the transposition of sounds.”
 “An Irish Bull may
very well be defined as any remark which appears rotund and meaningful enough, until our apprehension
actually arrives upon it, when there is simply nothing there,” as Max Eastman put it. Example:
“May you never live to see your wife a widow.”
 She may have meant George Bernard
Shaw. . . .
 Word stress can also determine whether or not slips occur. Manjari Ohala, a linguist
at San José State University, has claimed that Hindi speakers (of which she’s one) do not make
exchange slips because, she speculates, Hindi words don’t have a syllable with stronger stress.
She’s asked linguists in India to listen for slips, but they’ve reported nothing. This makes
Hindi a language that lacks verbal blunders, at least of some types.
 Among adult native speakers,
slips of sounds are more frequent than slips of words. According to Kay Bock, 40 percent of exchange errors
involve sounds; slightly more than 35 percent involve words.
Copyright © 2007 by Michael Erard