section recommended by A. K. Norris
by Jules Loh
Rear deeders, how your beds.
Let us salute the eponymous master of the verbal somersault, the Reverend William Archibald Spooner. He left us all a legacy of laughter
He also gave the dictionary a new entry: spoonerism. The very word brings a smile. It refers, of course, to the linguistic flip-flops that turn "a well-oiled bicycle" into "a well-boiled icicle. And other ludicrous ways speakers of English get their mix all talked up. English is fertile soil for spoonerism, as author and lecturer Richard Lederer points out, because the language has more than three times as many words as any other - 616,500 and growing at 450 a year. Consequently, there's a greater chance that any accidental transposition of letters or syllables will produce rhyming substitutes that still make sense - sort of.
"Spooner," says Lederer, "gave us tinglish errors and English terrors at the same time."
Born in 1844 in London, Spooner became an Anglican priest and a scholar. During a 60-year association with Oxford University, he lectured in history, philosophy and divinity. From 1876 to 1889 he served as a dean, and from 1913 to 1924 as warden, or president.
Spooner was an albino, small, with a pink face, poor eyesight and a head too large for his body. His reputation was that of a genial, kindly, hospitable man.
He seems also to have been somewhat of an absent-minded professor. He once invited a faculty member to tea "to welcome our new archeology Fellow."
"But, sir," the man replied, "I am our new archeology Fellow."
"Never mind," Spooner said. "Come all the same."
After a Sunday service he turned back to the pulpit and informed his student audience: "In the sermon I have just preached, whenever I said Aristotle I meant St. Paul." But Spooner was no featherbrain. In fact his mind was so nimble his tongue couldn't keep pace. The Greeks had a word for this type of impediment long before Spooner was born: metathesis. It means the act of transposing or switching things around. Is not spoonerism a more playful word? It means the same thing.
Reverend Spooner's tendency to get words and sounds crossed up could happen at any time, but especially when he was agitated. He reprimanded one student for "fighting a liar in the quadrangle" and another who "hissed my mystery lecture." To the latter he added in disgust, "You have tasted two worms."
Patriotic fervor excited Spooner as well. He raised this toast to Her Highness Victoria: "Three cheers for our queer old dean!" During World War 1 he reassured his students, "When our boys come home from France, we will have the hags flung out." And he lionized Britain's farmers as "noble tons of soil." His goofs at chapel were legendary. "Our Lord is a shoving leopard," he once intoned. He quoted I Corinthians 13:12 as "For now we see through a dark glassly . . ." Officiating at a wedding, he prompted a hesitant bridegroom, "Son, now it is kisstomary to cus the bride." And to a stranger seated in the wrong place: "I believe you're occupewing my pie. May I sew you to another sheet?"
Although he might simply have been concealing a dry wit, all of the professor's slips seem to have been accidental. So, says Lederer, if you come across one with too much meaning, it's probably not authentic. For instance, "a scoop of boy trouts" for " a troop of boy scouts" seem contrived and was probably invented by one of his students.
"A sign in a tavern notes 'Our customers enter optimistically and leave misty optically.' That's beautiful Lederer says, "but it was obviously contrived. Here's another often attributed to Dorothy Parker: 'I'd rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.' That's genius.
"Did Spooner really say, 'Which of us has not felt in his heart a half-warmed fish?' He certainly could have - he was trying to say half-formed wish."
Lederer offers these other (probably) authentic spoonerisms:
At a naval review Spooner marvelled at "this vast display of cattleships and bruisers."
To a school official's secretary: "Is the bean dizzy?"
Visiting a friend's country cottage: "You have a nosey little crook here."
Two years before his death in 1930 at age 84, Spooner told an interviewer he could recall only one of his trademark fluffs. It was the one he made announcing the hymn "kinkering Congs Their Titles Tale," meaning to say, "Conquering Kings." A lulu.
He obviously could have made many others. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word "spoonerism" began appearing in colloquial use as early as 1885, when Spooner was 41. Once when a group of students clamored outside his window for him to make a speech, he called down: "You don't want to hear a speech: you just want me to say one of those... things."
So if you make a verbal slip, rest easy. Many have. Radio announcer Harry Von Zell once introduced U.S. President Herbert Hoover as Hoobert Heever. And Lowell Thomas presented British minister Sir Stafford Cripps as Sir Stifford Craps.
Thanks to Reverend Spooner's style-setting somersaults, our own little tips of the slung will not be looked upon as the embarrassing babblings of a nitwit, but rather the whimsical lapses of a nimble-brain.
So let us applaud that gentle man who lent his tame to the nerm. May sod rest his goal.