Monday, January 31, 2011


A version of this article appeared in the Jan 31st Natl Post

Cruel and Unusual Puns
Howard Richler

Was that pun deliberate or accidental? Witticisms that appear to be mere slips of the tongue may instead have been craftily staged. Such is often the case with spoonerisms, named after the Reverend William Archibald Spooner, Warden of New College in Oxford between 1903 and 1924. Spooner was a highly respected administrator, but instead of honouring him for his forward thinking, we remember him for his linguistic reversals.

It has been reported that Spooner once referred to the hymn “Conquering Kings Their Titles Take” as “kinkering congs,” and introduced Dr. Childe’s friend as “Dr. Friend’s child.” While officiating at a wedding, Spooner supposedly blathered “if anyone present knows why this couple shouldn't be joyfully loined together” and later “it is kisstomary to cuss the bride.”

But the good Reverend’s reversals were not limited to words. At a dinner party he is said to have upset salt and then poured red wine on the salt. One might say that in both words and deeds he “put the heart before the course.”

While not all of Spooner’s gaffes can be substantiated, this did not stop his alleged bloopers from becoming the stuff of legend, particularly among sophomoric Oxonians with “mad banners,”  i.e. “bad manners.”   Spooner’s defenders maintain that some of the alleged howlers attributed to him are a “lack of pies.”  They include:
       A toast which needs no commendation from me our queer Dean. (dear Queen)

       The Lord is a shoving leopard. (loving shepherd)

       You are occupewing the wrong pie. (occupying the  wrong pew) May I sew you to another sheet? (may I show you to another seat)
       You have hissed (missed) all my mystery (history) lectures and tasted two worms.(wasted two terms) I saw you fight( light) a liar.(fire) Pack up your rags (bags) and bugs (rugs), and leave immediately by the town drain. (down train)

What causes these accidental gaffes, when they are indeed accidental? Sigmund Freud considered such slips of the tongue symptomatic of unconscious forces, or of mental conflict deep in the psyche. But Freud's interpretation doesn't account for the majority of gaffes, which are not particularly dramatic, such as saying “right lane” instead of “light rain.” More plausible is the explanation provided by Laurence Goldstein, a philosophy professor at the University of Kent. He believes the errors are “due to interference of the preparatory processing of sounds soon to be produced....We appear to think ahead to the sounds we shall need to make....”

Over time, the spoonerism has permeated popular culture in a myriad of ways.  It has become a popular comedic device: the Monty Python comedy troupe made particularly memorable use of spoonerisms. Who could forget the skit in which a customer walks into a bookshop and asks the proprietor if he has a Sale of Two Titties, by Darles Chickens?

Spoonerisms have also made good titles, to wit:

       Every Little Crook and Nanny – novel by Evan Hunter
       The Hand that Cradles the Rock – collection of poetry by Rita Mae Brown
       Blume in Love  - a 1973 movie directed by Paul Mazursky, starring George Segal

One even finds spoonerisms in song lyrics. In the song Walk On by U2 there is a lyric, “You’re packing a suitcase for a place none of us has been a place that has to be believed to be seen .”  My favourite sung spoonerism, however, is the titled lyric by Randy Hanzlick, I’d  rather have a bottle in front of me than have a frontal lobotomy.

Finally, spoonerisms occasionally produce interestingly ironic definitions.  After reading the following list you might spooneristically ask yourself if you've bred any good rooks lately:

       Alimony –  Bounty from the mutiny 
       Champagne – Sips that passion the night
       Counterfeiter –  A person who earns money the hard way; he makes it
       Hangover – The wrath of grapes
       Psychologist – A person who pulls habits out of rats

So perhaps after reading about spoonerisms, you will now agree with this musing by humourist Robert Schleifer: “It takes brains and creativity to patch a Hun.”

Howard Richler's latest book is Strange Bedfellows; The Private Lives of Words.

1 comment:

  1. I do believe that "joyfully loined" should be "jawfully loined."