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 reputedly did this.

They were already renowned by the author François Rabelais in the 16th century, and called contrepèteries.[3] In his novel Pantagruel, he wrote “femme folle à la messe et femme molle à la fesse” ("insane woman at mass, woman with flabby buttocks"). [4]

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.


Spooner as caricatured by Spy (Leslie Ward) in Vanity Fair, April 1898

Spoonerisms are named after the Reverend William Archibald Spooner (1844–1930), Warden of New College, Oxford, who was notoriously prone to this mistake.[5][6] 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...[7]

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

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"'[8]

In 1937, The Times quoted a detective describing a man as "a bricklabourer's layer" and used "Police Court Spoonerism" as the headline.[9] A spoonerism is also known as a marrowsky, purportedly after a Polish count who suffered from the same impediment.[10]


Caricature of Charles H. Workman.
The caption reads, "Through every passion raging."
The accompanying biography reads, "The only part of him which gets tired is his tongue, and occasionally the oft-repeated lines have got muddled. 'Self-constricted ruddles', 'his striggles were terruffic', and 'deloberately rib me' are a few of the spoonerisms he has perpetrated. Success has not spoilt him. He is a professional humourist, who has been known to make an Englishman laugh at breakfast."

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[5] that "The Kinquering Congs Their Titles Take" (in reference to a hymn)[11] 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.[12] 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."[13] They are as follows:

  • "Three cheers for our queer old dean!" (rather than "dear old queen," which is a reference to Queen Victoria)[13]
  • "Is it kisstomary to cuss the bride?" (as opposed to "customary to kiss")[13]
  • "The Lord is a shoving leopard." (instead of "a loving shepherd")[13]
  • "A blushing crow." ("crushing blow")[13]
  • "A well-boiled icicle" ("well-oiled bicycle")[13]
  • "You were fighting a liar in the quadrangle." ("lighting a fire")[13]
  • "Is the bean dizzy?" ("Dean busy")[13]
  • "Someone is occupewing my pie. Please sew me to another sheet." ("Someone is occupying my pew. Please show me to another seat.")[13]
  • "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.")[13]

A newspaper column[6] attributes this additional example to Spooner: "A nosey little cook." (as opposed to a "cosy little nook").

Popular use/cultureEdit

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


  • 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]


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.[17]

Twisted talesEdit

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.[18]



On a 3 December 1950 episode of The Jack Benny Program in which Jack mentions that he ran into his butler Rochester while in his car that was on a grease rack. Mary Livingston was supposed to say "How could you run into him on a grease rack?" but flubbed her line with "How could you run into him on a grass reek?" The audience broke up into so much laughter Jack wasn't able to reply as the show ran out of time.[23]

Folk etymologyEdit

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.[24]:p.78

Kniferisms and forkerismsEdit

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.[25] 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";[26] and during a live broadcast in 1931, radio presenter Harry von Zell accidentally mispronouncing US President Herbert Hoover's name as "Hoobert Heever."[26][27] Usage of these new terms has been limited; many sources count any syllable exchange as a spoonerism, regardless of location.[28]

See alsoEdit


  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. ^ https://dalspace.library.dal.ca/bitstream/handle/10222/59126/dalrev_vol46_iss4_pp457_465.pdf?sequence=1 : Rabelais gives perhaps the earliest literary example: "II n'y a point d'enchantement. Chascun de vous l'a veu. Je y suis maistre passé. A brum, a brum, je suis prestre Macé." Rabelais, instead of repeating "maître passé" (past master), wrote "prêtre Macé" (priest Mace), the name of the historian René Macé, a monk whose name was synonymous with simple or foolish.
  4. ^ https://www.francealumni.fr/en/static/the-art-of-spoonerism-6968: The first written proof dates back to the 16th century, with François Rabelais: in his famous novel "Pantagruel", the writer plays with the sound similarity between "femme folle à la messe" (insane woman at mass) and "femme molle à la fesse" (woman with flabby buttocks). At the time, this joke was not only funny; it was a way to upset proper etiquette. Under a supposedly serious sentence, a salacious innuendo is hiding.
  5. ^ a b "Names make news". Time. 29 October 1928. Archived from the original on 14 January 2009. Retrieved 20 September 2008.
  6. ^ a b "Spoonerism Message Lost in Translation". Toledo Blade. 3 November 1980.
  7. ^ "Every Schoolboy Knows", The Times, Dec 8, 1921, pg. 7
  8. ^ '"Spoonerisms" a Legend' in Daily Herald 28/9/1928
  9. ^ The Times, 29 October 1937, pg. 9
  10. ^ Chambers Dictionary 1993 ISBN 0-550-10255-8
  11. ^ Bartlett, John (1992) [1855]. Justin Kaplan (ed.). Bartlett's Familiar Quotations (16th ed.). Little, Brown and Company. pp. 533. ISBN 0-316-08277-5.
  12. ^ Quinion, Michael (28 July 2007). "Spoonerism". World Wide Words. Retrieved 19 September 2008.
  13. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Lederer, Richard (1988). Get Thee to a Punnery. Charleston, South Carolina: Wyrick & Co. pp. 137–148.
  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. ^ Cleary, Brian P. Rainbow Soup: Adventures in Poetry. Minneapolis, MN: Carolrhoda, 2004.
  18. ^ "Stoopnagle's Tale is Twisted, by Ken James". Archived from the original on 6 October 2008. Retrieved 3 November 2008.
  19. ^ Christopulos, J., and Smart, P.: Van der Graaf Generator – The Book, page 128. Phil and Jim publishers, 2005.
  20. ^ Smyth, David (26 November 2020). "Virtually Famous: Ritt Momney". Evening Standard. Retrieved 2 October 2020.
  21. ^ "Music – Review of Com Truise – Galactic Melt". BBC. 5 July 2011. Retrieved 9 July 2017.
  22. ^ "Mord Fustang – About". Retrieved 5 July 2021.
  23. ^ "Jack Benny's "Grass Reek" Punch Line Discovered After 65 Years". cleanslatefilms.com. 19 March 2015. Retrieved 15 June 2021.
  24. ^ Zuckermann, Ghil'ad (2003), Language Contact and Lexical Enrichment in Israeli Hebrew. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 9781403917232 / ISBN 9781403938695 [1]
  25. ^ Hofstadter, Douglas (1995). Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies: Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Human Thought. NY: Basic. p. 117.
  26. ^ a b 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.
  27. ^ "snopes.com: Harry von Zell and Hoobert Heever". Retrieved 2 February 2009.
  28. ^ "spoonerism definition". Dictionary.com. Retrieved 2 February 2009.

External linksEdit