A spoonerism is an error in speech in which corresponding consonants, vowels, or morphemes are switched (see Metathesis) between two words in a phrase.[1][2] These are named after the Oxford don and ordained minister William Archibald Spooner, who was famous for doing this.

An example is saying "The Lord is a shoving leopard" instead of "The Lord is a loving shepherd." While spoonerisms are commonly heard as slips of the tongue, and getting one's words in a tangle, they can also be used intentionally as a play on words.


Spoonerisms are named after the Reverend William Archibald Spooner (1844–1930), Warden of New College, Oxford, who was notoriously prone to this mistake.[3][4] The term "Spoonerism" was well established by 1921. An article in The Times from that year reports that,

The boys of Aldro School, Eastbourne, ... have been set the following task for the holidays: Discover and write down something about: The Old Lady of Threadneedle-street, a Spoonerism, a Busman's Holiday...[5]

An article in the Daily Herald in 1928 reported Spoonerisms to be a 'legend'. A Mr. Robert Seton, once a student of Dr. Spooner, admitted that the Dr.

made, to my knowledge, only one "Spoonerism" in his life, in 1879, when he stood in the pulpit and announced the hymn: 'Kinkering Kongs their Titles Take'...Later, a friend and myself brought out a book of "spoonerisms"'[6]

In 1937, The Times quoted a detective describing a man as "a bricklabourer's layer" and used "Police Court Spoonerism" as the headline.[7] A spoonerism is also known as a marrowsky, purportedly after a Polish count who suffered from the same impediment.[8]


Most of the quotations attributed to Spooner are apocryphal; The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (3rd edition, 1979) lists only one substantiated spoonerism: "The weight of rages will press hard upon the employer" (instead of "rate of wages"). Spooner himself claimed[3] that "The Kinquering Congs Their Titles Take" (in reference to a hymn)[9] was his sole spoonerism. Most spoonerisms were probably never uttered by William Spooner himself but rather made up by colleagues and students as a pastime.[10] Richard Lederer, calling "Kinkering Kongs their Titles Take" (with an alternative spelling) one of the "few" authenticated Spoonerisms, dates it to 1879, and he gives nine examples "attributed to Spooner, most of them spuriously."[11] They are as follows:

  • "Three cheers for our queer old dean!" (rather than "dear old queen," which is a reference to Queen Victoria)[11]
  • "Is it kisstomary to cuss the bride?" (as opposed to "customary to kiss")[11]
  • "The Lord is a shoving leopard." (instead of "a loving shepherd")[11]
  • "A blushing crow." ("crushing blow")[11]
  • "A well-boiled icicle" ("well-oiled bicycle")[11]
  • "You were fighting a liar in the quadrangle." ("lighting a fire")[11]
  • "Is the bean dizzy?" ("Dean busy")[11]
  • "Someone is occupewing my pie. Please sew me to another sheet." ("Someone is occupying my pew. Please show me to another seat.")[11]
  • "You have hissed all my mystery lectures. You have tasted a whole worm. Please leave Oxford on the next town drain." ("You have missed all my history lectures. You have wasted a whole term. Please leave Oxford on the next down train.")[11]

A newspaper column[4] attributes this additional example to Spooner: "A nosey little cook." (as opposed to a "cosy little nook").

In modern terms, "spoonerism" generally refers to any changing of sounds in this manner.

  • On the TV series Hee Haw, comedian/writer Archie Campbell was well known for using spoonerisms in his skits, most famously the "Pee Little Thrigs" and "Rindercella" skits, as well as previously doing so in his own comedy recordings well before the country/western-themed TV variety series, such as his "Beeping Sleauty" sketch.[12]
  • In Maisie and the Pinny Gig by Ursula Dubosarsky, a little girl named Maisie has a recurrent dream about a giant guinea pig, which she calls a "pinny gig."[13]
  • The Washington, D.C. political comedy sketch group Capitol Steps[14] has a long-standing tradition of performing a routine called "Lirty Dies"[15] during every performance, which features a typically 10-minute-long barrage of rapid-fire topical spoonerisms. A few examples over the years range from "Resident Pagan" (President Reagan) and the US's periodic practice of "Licking their Peaders" (Picking their leaders) to the NSA "poopin' on Snutin" (Snoopin' on Putin) and "phugging everybody's bones" (bugging everybody's phones).
  • Comedienne Jane Ace was notorious for her spoonerisms and other similar plays on words during her run as star of the radio sitcom Easy Aces.[16]
  • "Puck Flattsburgh" is a common rallying cry in the sports rivalry between Oswego and Plattsburgh State Universities' men's ice hockey teams, especially when Oswego is victorious. The phrase is a double entendre: if read at face value, indicates the sport ("puck") and the Plattsburgh team playing "flat;" read as a spoonerism, it is a veiled vulgar insult.[17]
  • Similarly to the above example, "Buck Fama" is a popular slogan in the (often contentious) rivalry between Louisiana State University and the University of Alabama (commonly shortened to Bama). This slogan can be heard very often from LSU fans.
  • In the Robert McCloskey books Homer Price and Centerburg Tales, the sheriff regularly uses spoonerisms, such as "sarber bhop" for "barber shop" and "waul them ahay" for "haul them away."
  • Former Swansea City manager Bob Bradley was often referred to as 'Brad Bobley's Megnuts' by Swansea supporters and football-related TV shows such as Soccer AM, who poked fun at his American accent and terminology[19]
  • The dialogue in Jim Henson's The Frog Prince (1971) included a partly-spoonerized instruction to disable a disguised witch's ("Aunt Taminella's") enchantment on a princess: the spoonerism was spoken by the princess herself as "Bake the hall in the candle of her brain", when the actual phrase was meant to say, "Break the ball in the handle of her cane", referring to a crystal ball that held the disguised witch's powers.
  • In Gummi Bears, Zummi Gummi often speaks in spoonerisms.
  • Sir Stafford Cripps was once mistakenly called Sir Stifford Crapps by McDonald Hobley[20] on the BBC.[21]


Shel Silverstein's book Runny Babbit is almost completely written in spoonerisms, from character names to anything else.

In his poem "Translation," Brian P. Cleary describes a boy named Alex who speaks in spoonerisms (like "shook a tower" instead of "took a shower"). Humorously, Cleary leaves the poem's final spoonerism up to the reader when he says,

He once proclaimed, "Hey, belly jeans"

When he found a stash of jelly beans.
But when he says he pepped in stew

We'll tell him he should wipe his shoe.[22]

In Samuil Marshak's poem What an Absent-Minded Guy (Вот какой рассеянный), the titular character uses spoonerisms at one point ("Глубокоуважаемый Вагоноуважатый! Вагоноуважаемый Глубокоуважатый!"). The character is based on the Russian scientist Ivan Kablukov, who was prone to spoonerisms himself.

Twisted tales

Comedian F. Chase Taylor was the star of the 1930s radio program Stoopnagle and Budd, in which his character, Colonel Stoopnagle, used spoonerisms. In 1945, he published a book, My Tale Is Twisted, consisting of 44 "spoonerised" versions of well-known children's stories. Subtitled "Wart Pun: Aysop's Feebles" and "Tart Pooh: Tairy and Other Fales," these included such tales as "Beeping Sleauty" for "Sleeping Beauty." The book was republished in 2001 by Stone and Scott Publishers as Stoopnagle's Tale is Twisted.[23]


  • The title of the NOFX album Punk In Drublic is a spoonerism of the legal offense of being "drunk in public".

Folk etymology

A spoonerism is sometimes used in folk etymology. For example, according to linguist Ghil'ad Zuckermann, some laymen wrongly believe that the English word butterfly derives from flutter by.[25]:p.78

Kniferisms and forkerisms

As complements to spoonerism, Douglas Hofstadter used the nonce words kniferism and forkerism to refer to changing, respectively, the vowels or the final consonants of two syllables, giving them a new meaning.[26] Examples of so-called kniferisms include a British television newsreader once referring to the police at a crime scene removing a 'hypodeemic nerdle'; a television announcer once saying that "All the world was thrilled by the marriage of the Duck and Doochess of Windsor";[27] and during a live broadcast in 1931, radio presenter Harry von Zell accidentally mispronouncing US President Herbert Hoover's name as "Hoobert Heever."[27][28] Usage of these new terms has been limited; many sources count any syllable exchange as a spoonerism, regardless of location.[29]

See also


  1. Eric Donald Hirsch; Joseph F. Kett; James S. Trefil (2002). The New dictionary of cultural literacy. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 160–. ISBN 978-0-618-22647-4. Retrieved 20 May 2013.
  2. The definition of Spoonerism in the 1924 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary is: An accidental transposition of the initial sounds, or other parts, of two or more words.
  3. "Names make news". Time. 29 October 1928. Retrieved 20 September 2008.
  4. "Spoonerism Message Lost in Translation". Toledo Blade. 3 November 1980.
  5. "Every Schoolboy Knows", The Times, Dec 8, 1921, pg. 7
  6. '"Spoonerisms" a Legend' in Daily Herald 28/9/1928
  7. The Times, 29 October 1937, pg. 9
  8. Chambers Dictionary 1993 ISBN 0-550-10255-8
  9. Bartlett, John (1992) [1855]. Justin Kaplan (ed.). Bartlett's Familiar Quotations (16th ed.). Little, Brown and Company. p. 533. ISBN 0-316-08277-5.
  10. Quinion, Michael (28 July 2007). "Spoonerism". World Wide Words. Retrieved 19 September 2008.
  11. Lederer, Richard (1988). Get Thee to a Punnery. Charleston, South Carolina: Wyrick & Co. pp. 137–148.
  12. MusicProf78 (26 January 2012). "1965 comedy: Beeping Sleauty - Archie Campbell" via YouTube.
  13. http://www.ursuladubosarsky.com Archived 7 February 2012 at the Wayback Machine retrieved 3 July 2012
  14. "The Capitol Steps – We put the MOCK in Democracy". capsteps.com.
  15. "Capitol Steps – Lirty Dies !". capsteps.com.
  16. Sterling, Christopher H., ed. (2003). Encyclopedia of Radio 3-Volume Set. Routledge. p. 1696. ISBN 1-57958-249-4. Retrieved 1 March 2011.
  17. Puck Flattsburgh: Oswego beats Plattsburgh 3-2. Bleacher Report. Retrieved 15 March 2015.
  18. http://www.muckfizzou.com/store/
  19. "Swansea boss Bob Bradley trolled on Soccer AM (Video)". Football (soccer) greatest goals and highlights | 101 Great Goals. 24 December 2016. Retrieved 26 February 2018.
  20. Michael Farrell, Key Issues for Primary Schools, Routledge, London, 2003, p. 70.
  21. "Meet the Nick Clegg of 1942". 18 April 2010 via The Guardian.
  22. Cleary, Brian P. Rainbow Soup: Adventures in Poetry. Minneapolis, MN: Carolrhoda, 2004.
  23. "Stoopnagle's Tale is Twisted, by Ken James". Archived from the original on 6 October 2008. Retrieved 3 November 2008.
  24. Christopulos, J., and Smart, P.: Van der Graaf Generator – The Book, page 128. Phil and Jim publishers, 2005.
  25. Zuckermann, Ghil'ad (2003), Language Contact and Lexical Enrichment in Israeli Hebrew. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 9781403917232 / ISBN 9781403938695
  26. Hofstadter, Douglas (1995). Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies: Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Human Thought. NY: Basic. p. 117.
  27. Simonini, R. C. (December 1956). "Phonemic and Analogic Lapses in Radio and Television Speech". American Speech. Duke University Press. 31 (4): 252–263. doi:10.2307/453412. JSTOR 453412.
  28. "snopes.com: Harry von Zell and Hoobert Heever". Retrieved 2 February 2009.
  29. "spoonerism definition". Dictionary.com. Retrieved 2 February 2009.
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