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All about spoonerisms

Sometimes your brain can get way ahead of your mouth. When your tongue and mouth are struggling to keep up with your little grey cells, you can easily make amusing mistakes.

There are many ways to mess up your words. We have discussed malapropisms before. A malapropism is the mistaken use of a word in place of a similar sounding one. However you could also switch corresponding consonants, vowels, or morphemes between two words and that’s called a spoonerism. Everyone has made a spoolish foonerism!

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Why spoonerism?

Spoonerisms are named for the Reverand Archibald Spooner (1844 – 1939). He was a highly respected English language scholar who lectured for more than 20 years at New College, Oxford. Unfortunately, Spooner was a rather nervous public speaker who was allegedly given to transposing the beginnings of adjacent words.

It has been suggested that Spooner often made this type of linguistic mistake. However, some people claim that he did this only once when he said “kinkering kongs” instead of “conquering kings”.


Here are some other spoonerisms that have been attributed to Reverend Spooner:

Three cheers for our queer old dean!” when he meant to say “three cheers for our dear old Queen!”

Will nobody pat my hiccup?” when he meant “Will nobody pick my hat up?

a well-boiled icicle” instead of “well-oiled bicycle

Whatever the truth may be regarding the Reverend Spooner, the term spoonerism has stuck.

Spoonerisms delivered live on air

It’s always a little embarrassing to screw up your words. But if you happen to be a broadcaster and deliver a spoonerism live on air, it is a toe-curling moment! There have been some truly cringe worthy spoonerisms uttered on TV and radio. Harry Von Zell uttered one of the best.

Harry Von Zell was a popular TV and radio announcer in America. He was best known for his work on the Bing Crosby Show and the Eddie Cantor Show. But he is also legendary for having introduced Herbert Hoover, President of the United States, as “Hoobert Heaver”.

Deliberate spoonerisms


Many performers have utilised spoonerisms as comedic devices and to great effect. English comedian Ronnie Barker was particularly fond of spoonerisms and could deliver lengthy monologues loaded with deliberate linguistic errors. He wrote and performed an hilarious version of the fairytale, Cinderella. Barker delivered this so faultlessly that many viewers didn’t notice the somewhat naughty spoonerisms that it contained. Here’s a short passage from the story:

“This is the story of Rindercella and her sugly isters. Rindercella and her sugly isters lived in a marge lansion. Rindercella worked very hard frubbing sloors, emptying poss pits, and shivelling shot.”

Ronnie Barker also created a now iconic character, the Chairman of The Royal Society for Piss Minunciation. His monologue was a fiesta of spoonerisms and malapropisms:

Are speech errors common?

Human speech appears to be an effortless and remarkably rapid process. On average, we utter 150 words per minute when speaking and yet make surprisingly few errors. Research suggests that we typically make only one linguistic error per 1000 words spoken which is incredible. Our brains are clearly adept at processing what we want to say and then ensuring that we say precisely that and not something else.

What causes spoonerisms?


Little is known about the areas of the human brain involved in processing and delivering words. This makes it very difficult to assess the causes of any errors that we do make. The subject of speech errors is something of a grey area which straddles the disciplines of psychology and linguistics. It should come as no surprise that the study of the mechanisms of speech is known as psycholinguistics. Spoonerisms have proved to be of particular interest to psycholinguistic researchers. If it is possible to understand how spoonerisms occur, much could be learnt about how our brains process language.

Spoonerisms typically involve swapping the beginnings of words rather than any other syllables. This suggests that as we are speaking, our brains are conjuring particular sounds for specific slots in words. Scientists can use this information as the basis for further research into speech mechanisms in the brain.

Recent studies have looked at which factors might induce spoonerisms and which pairs of words are most likely to be involved.

The research has shown that most spoonerisms produce words which are still actual words rather than nonsense. This demonstrates that we are subconsciously making every effort to speak correctly. It has also become clear that we are most likely to muddle up words which we are used to hearing paired together. For this reason, a spoonerism could result from trying to say, “kick a ball”” but is not so likely when trying to say, “colour a ball”.

Psycholinguists are not generally looking for the causes of errors in speech. They study the neural mechanisms involved in speech. But during one study, researchers made an interesting discovery entirely by accident. They found that people are more likely to deliver spoonerisms when encountering a serious distraction while speaking. This discovery was made when a scantily dressed female researcher entered the room. The male participants in the study immediately began muddling up their words!

Are spoonerisms inevitable?


It is inevitable that we will all deliver the occasional spoonerism. Our brains do a great job of ensuring that we say what we mean to say. But our grey matter can only process a finite amount of information at any one time. If we are distracted while speaking or lose focus because we are stressed, we make very milly sistakes.

#EnglishLanguage #languagespeed #pronunciation #speech

James Myatt

4 min read

May 25, 2021



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