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What is a Spoonerism?

Mary Elizabeth
Updated May 23, 2024
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Named after the British scholar Reverend William Archibald Spooner, the Spoonerism is an inadvertent transposition of the sounds of two words – usually the initial sounds – especially such a transposition that turns out to produce an interesting or amusing result. The Spoonerism differs from a slip of the tongue, which is a more general term referring to any instance of misspeaking – not confined to the involvement of two words at once or implying amusing results.

Apparently, many of the examples of the Spoonerism attributed to the Reverend Spooner are spurious, for example:

It is kisstomary to cuss the bride.

However, the Columbia World of Quotations (1996) attributes the following two Spoonerisms to him:

The Lord is a shoving leopard. meaning: The Lord is a loving shepherd.

Sir, you have tasted two whole worms; you have hissed all my mystery lectures and been caught fighting a liar in the quad; you will leave by the next town drain. meaning: Sir, you have wasted two whole terms; you have missed all my history lectures and been caught lighting a fire in the quad; you will leave by the next down train.

There are also cases of literary Spoonerism, as we might call the Spoonerism that is devised purposefully for amusement. In this case, the effect of the switching of sounds is planned. The literary Spoonerism is used by stand-up comedians, in comic skits, and in television and movie scripts.

Spoonerism is a form of metathesis, the switching of the order of sounds in pronunciation. However, Spoonerism is usually used to refer to transpositions occurring spontaneously and erratically, i.e., the speaker would consider them mistakes. Metathesis, though its use is broader, is also used to specifically refer to consistent switching of the order of sounds in the pronunciation of a single word, and some of these are dialectically linked. Pronunciations like:

  • JOO luh ree for jewelry (instead of JOO uhl ree)
  • NOO kyuh luhr for nuclear (instead of N(Y)OO klee uhr)
  • REE luh tuhr for realtor (instead of REE uhl tuhr)

are examples of this specific type of metathesis.

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Mary Elizabeth
By Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to writing articles on art, literature, and music for Language & Humanities, Mary works as a teacher, composer, and author who has written books, study guides, and teaching materials. Mary has also created music composition content for Sibelius Software. She earned her B.A. from University of Chicago's writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont.
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Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the...
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