A SLIP of the tongue can come in many forms: the Freudian slip, television bloopers or spoonerisms. A spoonerism is an accidental error in speech, or deliberate play on words, in which the first letters or sounds at the beginning of words in the same sentence are switched, for example saying ‘a well-boiled icicle’ instead of ‘a well-oiled bicycle’. Spoonerisms are mostly heard as unintentional slips of the tongue, but are often intentionally employed as clever gags in comedy acts and movies.
Spoonerisms are named after the Reverend William Archibald Spooner (1844-1930), a Dean at New College, Oxford who became a legend in his own lifetime for his unwitting and often hilarious slips of the tongue. Although Spooner himself only admitted to a couple of the quotes attributed to him, and most of the others are widely considered to be made up, for better or for worse his name is now forever linked with this clever form of wordplay.
Many of the quotes attributed to Spooner were likely made up by colleagues or students of his during his more than sixty years at New College, where he lectured on divinity, philosophy and ancient history. On one occasion noticing an exceptionally large turnout at a lecture he was to give, Spooner fumed, ‘You haven’t come for my lecture, you just want to hear one of those...things’. The following are amongst the more famous lines, which he is said to have uttered:
It is kisstomary to cuss the bride (customary to kiss)
A well-boiled icicle (well-oiled bicycle)
A nosey little cook (cozy little nook)
Three cheers for our queer old dean! (dear old queen - Queen Victoria)
The Lord is a shoving leopard. (a loving shepherd)
He was killed by a blushing crow. (crushing blow)
A half-warmed fish. (a half-formed wish)
You were fighting a liar in the quadrangle. (lighting a fire)
Is the bean dizzy? (Dean busy)
Someone is occupewing my pie. Please sew me to another sheet. (Someone is occupying my pew. Please show me to another seat.)
You have hissed all my mystery lectures. You have tasted a whole worm. Please leave Oxford on the next town drain. (You have missed all my history lectures. You have wasted a whole term. Please leave Oxford on the next down train.)
Spooner’s attitude to the fuss surrounding his slips of the tongue mellowed over the years, and he even approved of the printing of some of his spoonerisms – regardless of whether he thought they were fairly attributed to him or not. Spoonerisms have been used to great effect by comedian and film-maker Mel Brooks and the late British DJ and television entertainer Kenny Everett – whose hilariously over-the-top B-movie actress character Cupid Stunt pushed the boundaries on BBC television in the 1980s.
But many memorable spoonerisms are not the result of comedians’ cleverly-crafted scripts, but merely people getting their tongue twisted, and sadly sometimes on live television. Spare a thought for the British news presenter who referred to a ‘hypodeemic nerdle’ being removed from a crime scene by police, or another who announced that ‘All the world was thrilled by the marriage of the Duck and Doochess of Windsor’. They can happen to anybody, but nobody may ever be as badly inflicted as the late, learned Reverend Spooner. May he pest in reace.