Saturday, February 15, 2014

Spoonerisms: Toungled Tangs, Wixed-up Murds

We've all done it. We dry our tarnedest to cleak spearly and make our cleanings mere, but it rums out all cong. It might happen during a tight on the noun, when we've had tee many martoonis and are thunker than we drink. Or we may be serfectly pober.

Writers and comedians have taken Aesop's Fables, Grimm's Fairy Tales and Mother Goose stories and given them the Spoonerism treatment. We'll meet a few of them below.

What's a Spoonerism?

Spoonerisms are named after Reverend Spooner of Oxford University

Rev, Spooner
Reverend William Archibald Spooner (1844-1930) became well-known for his tendency to wix up murds spontaneously. Things change in the telling however and today Spooner, who became Warden of New College, Oxford, is credited for many Spoonerisms he never uttered. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (3rd edition, 1979) lists only one Spoonerism attributed to the good reverend: "The weight of rages will press hard upon the employer."

Spooner, who spent his entire adult life associated with New College, was a kindly man and well-liked in the Oxford community. Students had great fun making up Spoonerisms, but in an affectionate way, not intending to insult Spooner. This type of wordplay had been practiced at Oxford since the mid-nineteenth century. The term "Spoonerism" was in common use at Oxford by 1885, and known throughout England by 1900.

Rev. Spooner not only mixed up words, but also entire concepts on occasion. It is reported he once spilled salt at a dinner and carefully poured some wine on it, a reversal of the usual procedure. It's also said that he once remarked of a widow that "her husband was eaten by missionaries."

Fans of the urban legend site may be familiar with lists of quotes attributed to people like Andy Rooney, George Carlin and Stephen Wright. These lists often are filled with quotes those people never said. As the often-quoted Yogi Berra once remarked, "I really didn't say everything I said." This would come as no surprise to Rev. Spooner, who died long before the Internet came about. Some of the quotes attached to his name include:

"Mardon me, padam, but you are occupewing the wrong pie. May I sew you to another sheet?"

"You have hissed all my mystery lectures, and were caught fighting a liar in the quad. Having tasted two worms, you will leave by the next town drain." ("Town drain" = "down train," the drain, er, train, from Oxford down to London.)

"Let us glaze our asses to the queer old Dean."

"Is the bean dizzy?"

"There is no peace in a home where a dinner swells."

"The Lord is a shoving leopard."

Rev. Spooner wasn't entirely happy with his accidental notoriety. It is told that one night a group of students gathered under his window and began clamoring for him to make a speech. He came to the window and said, "You don't want a speech. You only want me to say one of those things."

Spoonerisms, Malapropisms, Eggcorns & Mondegreens

What's the difference?

Mrs. Malaprop
As we've seen, a Spoonerism occurs when the first sounds in adjacent words get exchanged. "Wixed up murds" instead of "mixed up words," for instance. They can be accidental, as in Rev. Spooner's case, or deliberate as in the numerous cases in this lens.

A malapropism occurs when a completely different word is substituted for the one meant. The term derives from the French term mal à propos (literally "ill-suited"). 18th-century playwright Richard Sheridan created a character, Mrs. Malaprop, in his 1775 play The Rivals. For instance, she said "...she's as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of Nile." Of course, she meant "alligator." The substituted word is a real word but it makes no sense in the context it is used. Mrs. Malaprop was blithely unaware of her errors, but sometimes people commit a malapropism and instantly realize their mistake. A friend once told me, "It seems like every time I get in the shower the toilet rings." She knew immediately what she'd done, and we both cracked up.

Then there's the eggcorn which is an idiosyncratic substitution that might make sense such as "old-timer's disease" for "Alzheimer's disease." The term was coined by Jeffrey Pullham in 2003. He was responding to an article by Mark Liberman who wrote of someone who said "egg corn" instead of "acorn." Liberman said there was no term for that kind of substitution. Pullham suggested "eggcorn" itself. The recently invented word "refudiate" is an eggcorn.

Finally, we have Mondegreens. These are usually misheard song lyrics. The term was coined by Sylvia Wright in a 1954 essay in Harper's Magazine, "The Death of Lady Mondegreen." She'd misheard a line in the Scottish ballad "The Bonny Earl O'Moray. " Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands, / Oh, where hae ye been? / They hae slain the Earl O' Moray, / And Lady Mondegreen." The fourth line is really "And laid him on the green."

Enter Colonel Lemuel Q. Stoopnagle

My Tale Is Twisted! Or the Storal to this Mory 

Stoopnagle & Budd
F. Chase Taylor was a radio comedian who created the character of Colonel Lemuel Q. Stoopnagle. His first radio job at the CBS affiliate in Buffalo, NY led to teaming up with announcer Budd Hollick after they had to ad-lib for fifteen minutes when a storm caused the station to lose the feed from the network. Stoopnagle and Budd became famous in the 1930s, appearing on many radio shows, including a stint as Fred Allen's summer replacement in 1936. They went their separate ways in 1937.

Taylor, as Stoopnagle, continued on as a radio and print comedian, publishing several books in addition to My Tale Is Twisted! (1945). He also proposed a number of inventions, including an upside down lighthouse for submarines; the tates, a compass that points anywhere but north, proving he who has a tates is lost; and a twenty-foot pole for touching people you wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole. He was known for his more-than-a-little-strange catchphrases such as, "If it weren't for half the people in the United States, the other half would be all of them."

Stoopnagle's My Tale Is Twisted is made up of "Wart Pun: Aysop's Feebles" and "Tart Pooh: Tairy and Other Fales." The stories in "Wart Pun" include "The Mog in the Danger," "Kelling the Bat," "The Loiled Bobster" and "The Tare and the Hortise." In "Tart Pooh" we encounter "The Pea Little Thrigs," "The Heck of the Resperus," "Gransel and Hetl" and "Paul Revide's Rear." The latter item includes a stanza of Henry Longworth Wadsfellow's famous poem.

Taylor got into television in 1949 with Colonel Stoopnagle's Stoop. Unfortunately, he died in 1950 of a heart ailment at the age of 52.

Colonel Stoopnagle Is Rescued from Obscurity

...and elevated to at least semi-obscurity by Keen James

Humor doesn't always stay in the limelight. While Colonel Stoopnagle may have enjoyed fame in the 1930s and 1940s, few today are probably aware of his comic genius. My Tale Is Twisted! had faded from the public consciousness when it was discovered by Keen James, who liked reading to his children. Even though his youngest daughter was beyond the age of being read to, James read it to her anyway, and she and he were both delighted.

James decided to get Stoopnagle's masterpiece back into print. He took the stories, updated some of the references for today's readers and listeners (for instance, Stoopnagle had never heard of Rulia Joberts or Spitney Brears), added some appendices, and published Stoopnagle's Tale Is Twisted: Spoonerisms Run Amok with Stone and Scott Publishers in 2000. The appendices include short biographies of Rev. Spooner and Colonel Stoopnagle, a detailed explanation of the Spoonerism and its many forms, and "Kernels from the Colonel," which includes titles of books Stoopnagle never got around to writing, the original introduction and the original back cover. (If you click on the cover, you'll go to the book's page on

If one were to consider Stoopnagle's original work as the bible of Spoonerisms, then the latter work can be considered the Keen James version of that bible.

About Keen James
According to an online entry for the Princeton Alumni Weekly, Keen James was born in 1929. His studies at Princeton were interrupted by service in the Air Force as a Russian Language specialist from 1949 to 1954. He returned to Princeton and graduated with a B.A. in English in 1957. He did graduate work at Colorado State University. Following his retirement in 1994, James edited and published the memoirs of his great-grandfather William W. Keen, Jr., a surgeon in the Civil War. Dr. Keen performed the first successful brain tumor operation in 1887. Keen James also published Stoopnagle's Tale is Twisted. James died in September 2005 of a respiratory ailment. He was 76.

Spoonerisms in the Wild

Spamous Foonerisms you may have heard

One of the oldest and best known Spoonerisms in radio was uttered by announcer Harry Von Zell in the early 1930s: "Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States, Hoobert Heever."

Another announcer once solemnly intoned, "All the world was thrilled by the marriage of the Duck and Doochess of Windsor."

As Queen Elizabeth II sailed into Sydney Harbour aboard the royal yacht Brittania, an excited announcer said, "...and there goes the 21-sun galute."

It was once announced that word of an impending presidential veto came from "a high White Horse souse."

TV producer Kermit Schaefer produced a number of "Blooper" albums in the 1950s and 1960s which included these and many other Spoonerisms, malapropisms, and just plain mistakes. While many were genuine recordings, some were recreated. Unfortunately, none of the LP albums have been transferred to CD. They inspired several TV shows that are still airing today.

Loonerisms in My Spife

I first encountered Spoonerisms in grade school. In one of the books in reading class, about a boy named Homer in the fictional town of Centerville, the town's barber answered his phone by saying, "Sharber bop!" Half a century later, the barber and his Spoonerisms are about all I remember about that book. But it got me started thinking about Spoonerisms, and I never really stopped.

Later on, in the 1960s a novelty record about Rindercella and the Prandsome Hince came out. I learned enough of it to be able to tell the story, although I had to make up a few lines of my own since I never owned the record. A few years later I saw Archie Campbell on "Hee Haw" do his version of the story. In the mid-70s, I did a version of Rindercella at a cast party during my one and only try at community theater. That bit was a bigger hit than my small part.

A few years later, a folk musician at the Northern Lights Coffeehouse, a church-basement venue in Fitchburg, MA where I was emcee, performed another Spoonerized tairy fale about Beeping Sleauty, who was cursed to frick her pinger on a winning spiel dindle and spy, but she went into a sleep dumber instead.

During the late '80s I did a couple of folk radio shows on WICN, a public radio station in Worcester, MA. Two other folk announcers and I were sharing the duties during a fundraiser. One decided to play "The Fiddler and the Peddler" by Rick and Lorraine Lee. I happened to mention, "Now there's a title you don't want to mess up." I probably shouldn't have said that, because my friend announced it as "The Piddler and the Feddler."

A bizard's wizness card
At the Faerieworlds Summer Celebration in 2008 near Eugene, OR, I was dressed as a wizard, much as I had the previous year. This time, however, my persona was Cabra d'Abra, the Wurst Accizard, under the spell of a witched wick. Any time I tried to meak of spagic, I would spook in Speenerisms, which of course made it hard to spast kells. I've continued going to Faerieworlds as a Woonerizing spizard, although thanks to a small role in the independent film The Otherworld, I've changed the name to Gwydion.

This was originally part of my lens Spoonerisms, which was a Lens of the Day on November 7, 2008. The lens has since been deleted.

Other blog posts taken from the Spoonerisms lens, including this one, are:

No comments: