Spoonerism or Slip of the Tongue

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

William Spooner
William Archibald Spooner (1844-1930). Oxford Science Archive/Print Collector/Getty Images

A spoonerism (pronounced SPOON-er-izm) is a transposition of sounds (often the initial consonants) in two or more words, such as " shoving leopard" in place of "loving shepherd." Also known as slip of the tongue, exchange, metaphasis, and marrowsky.

A spoonerism is usually accidental and may have a comic effect. In the words of British comedian Tim Vine, "If I ever find out what a Spoonerism is, I'll heat my cat."

The term spoonerism is derived from the name of William A. Spooner (1844–1930), who had a reputation for making these slips of the tongue. Spoonerisms are fairly common in everyday speech and were well known, of course, even before Reverend Spooner lent his name to the phenomenon.

Examples and Observations of Spoonerism

  • "Rev. Dr. William Archibald Spooner, one-time warden of New College, Oxford, celebrated last fortnight his golden wedding anniversary. He has long been aware that he is the cause of the appearance of the word 'spoonerism' in the Oxford English Dictionary. A spoonerism is the transposition of two sounds, or of the first letters of two words, in a simple sentence. In 1879, Dr. Spooner announced a hymn as 'The Kinquering Congs Their Titles Take.' Since then, he has been labeled the author of countless spoonerisms. But, on his golden wedding celebration, he stoutly maintained that 'Kinquering Congs' was his one and only spoonerism, that it was a slip of his tongue.

    "Other famed spoonerisms:
    • It is kistomary to cuss the bride.
    • Give three cheers for our queer old dean.
    • Have you, my brethren, ever nurtured in your bosom a half-warmed fish?"
    ("Names Make News." Time magazine, October 29, 1929)
  • "Spooner . . . once said to a stranger who was occupying his personal pew in the college chapel: 'Excuse me, but I think you are occupewing my pie.' He began a speech to an audience of farmers: 'I have never before addressed so may tons of soil.'"
    (Peter Farb, Word Play: What Happens When People Talk. Alfred A. Knopf, 1974)
  • "Spooner became the stuff of legend, which grew and multiplied with the help of his colleagues and students. He probably never did ask a Roman Catholic for a prescription of the dope, address a crowd of framers as noble tons of soil, compliment his hostess on her nosy little cook, or offer to sew a woman to her sheet. On one occasion, toasting Queen Victoria at a College function, he is said to have raised his glass to the queer old Dean."
    (Margaret Visser, The Way We Are. HarperCollins, 1994)
  • Metaphasis
    "Spoonerisms all work the same way: the reversed sounds come from the beginnings of the words, rarely at the ends, and very often from the syllable that carries the stress. . . .

    "The scientific name for a spoonerism is an exchange, or in the Greek, metaphasis. Just as the word 'Kleenex' now refers to all paper tissues, 'spoonerism' serves as the blanket term for all exchanges of sounds. In general, consonants are more often transposed than vowels. As the psychologist Donald MacKay has observed, the sounds reverse across a distance no greater than a phrase, evidence that a person planning what to say next does so at about a phrase's span in advance."
    (Michael Erard, Um . . .: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean. Pantheon, 2007)
  • Spoonerisms and Psycholinguistics
    "What we can learn from slips of the tongue with regard to psycholinguistics is that: 
    • - we obviously start speaking before we have planned how to finish our very first sentence and that
    • - planning seems to start with a rough outline of the sentence structure which is eventually filled with lexical items while speaking has already started.
    The latter is also shown by the fact that speech errors in general preserve, for the most part, the word class of the target."
    (Paul Georg Meyer et al., Synchronic English Linguistics: An Introduction, 3rd ed. Narr, 2002)
  • Monty Python's Spoonerisms
    Presenter: And what is your next project?
    Hamrag Yatlerot: Ring Kichard the Thrid.
    Presenter: I'm sorry?
    Hamrag Yatlerot: A shroe! A shroe! My dingkome for a shroe!
    Presenter: Ah, King Richard, yes. But surely that's not an anagram, that's a spoonerism.
    (Michael Palin and Eric Idle in Monty Python's Flying Circus, 1972)
  • Jober as a Sudge
    "This is a spoonerism for 'Sober as a Judge' and an excuse for hauling out this old exchange:
    Defendant: I was drunk as a judge when I committed the offense.
    Judge: The expression is 'sober as a judge.' Don't you mean 'drunk as a lord'?
    Defendant: Yes, my lord."
    (Paul Dickson, Intoxerated: The Definitive Drinker's Dictionary. Melville House, 2012)
  • "Ronald/Donald"
    "Ronald Derds (or was it Donald Rerds)?
    Was a boy who always wixed up his merds.
    If anyone asked him,. 'What's the time?'
    He'd look at his watch, and say, 'Norter past quine.'"
    (Rod Hull, "Ronald/Donald")