What do the phrases “lighting a fire” and “fighting a liar” have in common? Aside from being potentially dangerous, they’re spoonerisms. This form of wordplay typically happens when the first letters of two consecutive words are transposed, which jumbles the sentence and sometimes creates a funny new meaning — for example, “jelly beans” becomes “belly jeans.”
Sometimes referred to as a “slip of the tongue,” this kind of mix-up was coined as a “spoonerism” in 1921. It was named after Reverend William Archibald Spooner, a lecturer at Oxford University, who was known for causing linguistic bedlam in class and at church by mixing up his words. Most spoonerisms attributed to the reverend are hearsay; it’s rumored that his students were in on the bit and came up with many of the following spoonerisms themselves.
Spoonerisms Attributed to Spooner
Spoonerism: Weight of rages
Correct: Rate of wages
According to the 1979 Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, the reverend once said, “The weight of rages will press hard upon the employer,” instead of, “The rate of wages will press hard upon the employer.” In truth, both situations could happen.
Spoonerism: Queer old dean
Correct: Dear old queen
Spooner accidentally called Queen Victoria “queer” (meaning “odd”) during a toast — or did he? This potentially apocryphal spoonerism is one of the most famous.
Spoonerism: Hags flung out
Correct: Flags hung out
During a discussion about World War I, Spooner is rumored to have said, “When our boys come home from France, we will have the hags flung out.” He undoubtedly meant that the Union Jack would be flying — no one was throwing witches out of windows.
Spoonerism: Shoving leopard
Correct: Loving shepherd
Legend says that the reverend had slip-ups in church as well, once reciting: “Our Lord is a shoving leopard.”
Spoonerism: Cattle ships and bruisers
Correct: Battleships and cruisers
Spooner purportedly admired a “vast display of cattle ships and bruisers” at a naval review — though he was likely seeing battleships, not ships full of cows.
Spoonerism: Bean dizzy
Correct: Dean busy
At Oxford, Spooner allegedly once asked, “Is the bean dizzy?” instead of asking, “Is the dean busy?”
More Famous Spoonerisms
Spoonerism: Hoobert Heever
Correct: Herbert Hoover
Spoonerisms aren’t limited to the first letters of words; they can also form by swapping middle letters or sounds. This was the case in 1930 when radio host Harry von Zell mistakenly referred to President Hoover as “Hoobert Heever” in a major broadcasting blunder.
Spoonerism: Runny Babbit
Correct: Bunny Rabbit
Children’s author Shel Silverstein wrote an entire book of poetic spoonerisms titled Runny Babbit: A Billy Sook. The book, posthumously published in 2005, follows the titular character, Runny Babbit, and his friends Toe Jurtle, Skertie Gunk, Rirty Dat, Dungry Hog, and Snerry Jake on their adventures. Silverstein was an expert at wordplay, and spoonerisms were just one tactic he employed in his writing: “So if you say, ‘Let's bead a rook / That's billy as can se,’ / You’re talkin’ Runny Babbit talk, / Just like mim and he.”
Spoonerisms were used to hilarious effect in a skit called “Rindercella,” written by comedian Archie Campbell, that appeared on the classic TV variety show Hee Haw. The fairy-tale princess Rindercella lived with her “mugly other and two sad blisters” (her ugly mother and two bad sisters).
Spoonerism: Bass-ackwards on a jass-ack
Correct: A** backwards on a jackass
This spoonerism was found in a 19th-century letter written by Abraham Lincoln. It’s unclear if Lincoln thought up the spoonerism himself, or if it was something he heard from someone else (this type of wordplay was very popular during his time). The letter goes on to tell a story in spoonerisms: “He said he was riding bass-ackwards on a jass-ack, through a patton-cotch, on a pair of baddle-sags, stuffed full of binger-gred, when the animal steered at a scump… he fell right in a great tow-curd…” Yes, even this influential President made jokes about cow dung.
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