Spoonerism

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(This page can be part of a Course in Figures of Speech. You can find an introduction to it at Figures of Speech course. Spoonerism is one of a group of Figures of meaning, a set of Figures of speech put together for better understanding. This page can stand on its own, as well. You may have accessed it from a page on a particular example, or by a direct search.)

Spoonerism is a special case of metathesis. Here, words are altered by moving letters from their usual ('proper') place into another, or be changing places with other letters. In the most common kind of spoonerism, the initial letters, or pairs of letters, of two words are swapped. For example, a Christian prayer refers to Jesus as "our loving shepherd", but by an accidental spoonerism the person reading the prayer may say "our shoving leopard". Spoonerisms can be accidental; they can also be deliberate, as a form of humour based on word-play. Accidental spoonerisms are often remembered becuse they were funny, as for example when boys beginning to learn the game of rugby football (or rugger) ask their teacher for the the bugger rall instead of the 'rugger ball': it may make them giggle for months to come.

The word spoonerism is derived from the name of William Archibald Spooner (1844–1930) a don at Oxford who was said to have frequently mispronounced his words by transposing the initial sounds of a pair of words. In Chapel, he is said to have noticed that someone else was sitting in his normal place, and asked: "Please sew me to another sheet; someone else is occupewing my pie." Spoonerism is a form of metathesis.) Dr Spooner is supposed to have prayed for the health of “Our queer Dean”, when he meant “our dear Queen”. Ho, ho.

When a spoonerism is used deliberately, as a joke, it is a form of pun, or 'play on words'. One example is the riddle “Why did the butterfly flutter by?”. The answer is “Because she saw the dragonfly drink the flagon dry.” Here "butterfly" becomes "flutter by", and so on.