Thursday, March 02, 2006
William Archibald Spooner
The article reproduced below appeared in the February 1995 edition of Reader's Digest Magazine.
Reverend Spooner's Tips of the Slung
Rear Deeders, how your beds. Let us salute the eponymous master of the verbal somersault, the Rev. William Archibald Spooner. He left us all a legacy of laughter. He also gave the dictionary a new entry: spoonerism. The very word brings a smile. It refers 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.
English is a fertile soil for spoonerisms, as author and lecturer Richard Lederer points out, because our language has more than three times as many words as any other – 616,500 and growing at 450 a year. Consequently, there's a greater chance that any accidental transposition of letters or syllables will produce rhyming substitutes that still make sense – sort of.
"Spooner," says Lederer, "gave us tinglish errors and English terrors at the same time." Born in 1844 in London, Spooner became an Anglican priest and a scholar. During a 60-year association with Oxford University, he lectured in history, philosophy, and divinity. From 1876 to 1889, he served as a Dean, and from 1903 to 1924 as Warden, or president.
Spooner was an albino, small, with a pink face, poor eyesight, and a head too large for his body. His reputation was that of a genial, kindly, hospitable man. He seems also to have been something of an absent-minded professor. 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."
But Spooner was no featherbrain. In fact his mind was so nimble his tongue couldn't keep up. The Greeks had a word for this type of impediment long before Spooner was born: metathesis. It means the act of switching things around.
Reverend Spooner's tendency to get words and sounds crossed up could happen at any time, but especially when he was agitated. 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 fervour excited Spooner as well. He raised his toast to Her Highness Victoria: "Three cheers for our queer old dean!" During WWI he reassured his students, "When our boys come home from France, we will have the hags flung out." And he lionised Britain's farmers as "noble tons of soil."
His goofs at chapel were legendary. "Our Lord is a shoving leopard," he once intoned. He quoted 1 Corinthians 13:12 as, "For now we see through a dark, glassly..." (through a glass, darkly). Officiating at a wedding, he prompted a hesitant bridegroom, "Son, it is now 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?"
Did Spooner really say, "Which of us has not felt in his heart a half-warmed fish?" he certainly could have – he was trying to say half-formed wish.Lederer offers these other authentic spoonerisms: At a naval review Spooner marvelled at "this vast display of cattle ships and bruisers." To a school official's secretary: "Is the bean dizzy?" Visiting a friend's country cottage: "You have a nosey little crook here."
Two years before his death in 1930 at age 86, Spooner told an interviewer he could recall only one of his trademark fluffs. It was one he made announcing the hymn "Kinkering Congs Their Titles Take," meaning to say "Conquering Kings."
So if you have made a verbal slip, rest easy. Many have. Radio announcer Harry Von Zell once introduced the president as Hoobert Heever. And Lowell Thomas presented British Minister Sir. Stafford Cripps as Sir. Stifford Craps.
Thanks to Reverend Spooner's style-setting somersaults, our own little tips of the slung will not be looked upon as the embarrassing babblings of a nitwit, but rather the whimsical lapses of a nimble brain. So let us applaud that gentle man who lent his tame to the nerm. May sod rest his goul.