William Archibald Spooner (1844-1930) was dean and warden of New College, Oxford, where he taught ancient history, divinity and philosophy. He was also an ordained Anglican priest.
But his memory lives on for another reason. He was infamous for garbling the language — for accidentally transposing syllables in spoken English. He did this so consistently that he gave us the eponym, “spoonerism.” The first printed record of this term dates to the 1890s.
Moving initial sounds from one word to another is certainly not unique to Spooner. In fact, linguists have an official label for a spoonerism. This is metathesis, pronounced meh-TATH-eh-sis. This word came into English through Late Latin from the Greek metatithenia (to transpose; to change places).
Metathesis is not confined to slips-of-the-tongue. It has a legitimate place in language development. It occurs when, as so often happens, popular usage changes spelling and pronunciation in a given word. We can easily see this in the Old English brid, which became bird in Modern English.
But, as far as I know, not even one of Spooner’s accidental bloopers ever changed the language. They simply made his students laugh and continue to evoke laughter even today.
Hundreds of examples of spoonerisms exist, not all of them uttered by the good reverend himself. Not even many of those attributed to him can be proven his.
One actual example of his misspeaking is the well-documented, “The Lord is indeed a shoving leopard.”
Another much-quoted example may be apocryphal (not proven authentic). It is said that following a wedding ceremony he’d officiated at, Spooner told the bridegroom, “It is now kisstomary to cuss the bride.”
Modern spoonerisms are often the result of radio and TV blunders. These are, therefore, not only documented but recorded.
Here’s one from radio personality Harry Von Zell (1906-1980). Introducing America’s head of state, Von Zell said, “From the White House in Washington, we bring you the President of the United States, Mr. Hoobert Heever.”
The BBC once announced an upcoming presentation of Shakespeare’s “Shaming of the Trew.”
Once, popular talk-show host, Merv Griffin (1925-2007), couldn’t recall the name of his guest, a famous movie star. When it finally came to him, he exclaimed, “Rasil Bathbone!”
David Letterman, in wishing Jewish viewers a happy New Year, once proclaimed, “Happy Newish Jew Year.”
And then there was the time when CBS radio’s, Jack Gregson, introduced a hymn as, “The Lord Shall Lead His Shock of Fleep, sung by the Mormon Tabernickle Choir.”
Many time spoonerisms aren’t accidental, of course. Comedians delight in playing with this type of word gaffe. We see this in other quirky language as well — tongue twisters and mixed-up words (malapropisms), for example.
In 1989, English entertainer, Rod Hull (1936-1999) wrote a children’s poem he called, Ronald/Donald. This poem begins:
“Ronald Derds (or was it Donald Rerds?)
“Was a boy who always wixed up his merds.
“If anyone asked him, ‘What’s the time?’
“He’d look at his watch and say, ‘Norter past quine.’”