Nathanael Green's Blog

An advertising copywriter, novelist, and freelance writer's brain goo.

Spun with Foonerisms

with 8 comments


Lard chips are mind-explodingly good.

They’re not actually marketed as lard chips, but Good’s Potato Chips aren’t cooked in soybean oil or partially-hydrogenated anything. They’re literally cooked in lard, which I’m sure is what makes them the best potato chips on the planet.

What’s this have to do with language? Well, lard chips were pretty much omnipresent in my college apartment. And my friends and I had a little game of swapping the sounds between two words to see if it would make new, funnier words.

It was inevitable that we transposed the initial sounds of “lard chips” to get “charred lips.” And that just tickled my linguistic funny bone.

That silliness has a name?

Spoonerisms, technically called metathesis, are basically when you mix up sounds in your speech. This includes transposing the initial sounds in two words (charred lips), but it’s also metathesis when sounds within a word get flip-flopped (saying revelant for relevant, for example).

Spoonerisms were named for the Reverend William Archibald Spooner, who lived in Oxford early in the 20th century and supposedly had a tendency to swap sounds between words, often comically. One of the most famous examples attributed to the good Rev is “A toast to our queer old dean!” meaning “our dear old queen.”

While accidental slips of the tongue can be pretty funny, people also use spoonerisms intentionally. One of my favorite examples is: “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.”

I’d have to agree with Dorothy Parker there, and also raise said bottle in toast for such a sharp spoonerism.

Everyday metathesis

While spoonerisms often happen randomly and are quickly caught by the speaker, they can also be more tenacious. A lot of people don’t recognize what they’re saying as a spoonerism, and the switched pronunciation can work itself into repetitive speech patterns.

Know anyone who says:

  • ax for ask?
  • foilage for foliage?
  • nucular for nuclear?
  • purdy for pretty?

Or how about a little kid saying p’sketti for spaghetti?

Most of the one-word metatheses simply appear to be lazy speaking, and well they might be. But lazy speaking isn’t anything new, and much of our common pronunciation can be explained by our ancestors’ laziness.

Bird isn’t really the word.

Ever wonder why the word iron isn’t pronounced eye-ron? At one time it was, but then a repetitive spoonerism eventually turned eye-urn into the accepted norm.

And if you think ax sounds bad for ask? In Chaucer’s time, both were accepted pronunciations. In the Prologue to the Wife of Bath’s Tale, he writes “I axe” meaning “I ask.” Over time, ax fell out of favor and was replaced with ask.

Or look up the etymology of bird. In Middle English, it was pronounced brid, and somewhere around a thousand years ago, people mixed up the i and the r sounds and gave us the pronunciation we have today.

You see, spoonerisms aren’t just fun. They also help form our ever-changing language.

So if you’re looking for some cheap giggles, just watch out for things you can spoonerize. I don’t know about you, but I’m filled with childish glee every time I see a gas-station Food Mart.

photo by Daquella manera.

Written by Nathanael Green

June 1, 2009 at 7:43 pm

8 Responses

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  1. One of my favorites is “popcorn,” which can become “cop porn.”

    And there’s always “sick nucks.”

    BTW, one of my favorite undergrad classes was devoted entirely to Chaucer, and I loved reading The Canterbury Tales in Middle English. Yeah, I’m a nerd.

    Brian O'Rourke

    June 2, 2009 at 12:43 pm

    • “Nick sucks?” Oh, I get it now.

      Nick Hughes

      June 2, 2009 at 3:52 pm

    • A Chaucer class would be fantastic! I had only a very brief experience with him in high school, then reading him solo. Something more formal would probably be enlightening.

      Ah, I do so love a good spoonerism, and popcorn is one. Also, there’s a neighborhood in DC named Adams Morgan, which is apparently a nightlife hotspot. That’s where some thoughtful person put up his shingle for a bar named Madam’s Organ.

      Nathanael Green

      June 2, 2009 at 8:56 pm

      • My brother-in-law often makes inadvertent spoonerisms, often funny, and often revealing the crazy, but often brilliant wiring of his brain. Of course, I can’t think of a single one right now.


        June 6, 2009 at 2:29 am

        • I love it when that happens! If there are any good ones that you remember, let me know.

          My problem with spoonerisms is that I do them too often on purpose and the mixed-up versions tend to sound correct to me. It takes me a second to remember that that store actually is called “Super Pets” and not “Pooper Sets.”

          Nathanael Green

          June 7, 2009 at 7:10 pm

  2. Nate – I recently found this classic spoonerism story. Have you ever heard it?

    Nick Hughes

    June 11, 2009 at 12:21 pm

    • I’d never seen this, no. But it’s pretty funny and really impressive! I wonder how many times he had to practice it to get it right.

      Nathanael Green

      June 11, 2009 at 5:19 pm

  3. […] Hughes sent this video my way in the comments of the post on spoonerisms, but I thought it was good enough to make sure everyone got to see […]

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