origin of ‘spoonerism’ (unintentional interchange of sounds)


photograph of William Archibald Spooner in The Leeds Mercury (Yorkshire) of Monday 1st September 1930


There is a rather awkward moment in “An Italian Straw Hat” when Laurence Payne, as a young bridegroom, looking desperately into the auditorium of the Old Vic, cries: “The thick plottens!” Hearing this elementary Spoonerism, graver members of the audience at the première bent their heads, and one seemed to detect a sound of low moaning. It was not, I fear, an inspired fizz of wit; but these things do happen in farces; the moans came, I fancy, merely because the farce was acted on the grave stage of the Old Vic. Otherwise, none would have cared a straw.

from The Illustrated London News of Saturday 20th December 1952



The noun spoonerism denotes an accidental or intentional transposition of the initial sounds, or other parts, of two or more words, often resulting in an amusing ambiguity of meaning—synonym: marrowsky; cf. also malapropism and eggcorn.

It is from the name of the Reverend William Archibald Spooner (22nd July 1844 – 29th August 1930), an English scholar who reputedly made such errors in speaking. However, according to the following from the Lancashire Daily Post of Monday 1st September 1930, one spoonerism only was made by Spooner, the others were invented by other persons as a pastime:



The Rev. Dr. William Archibald Spooner, for 21 years Warden of New College, Oxford, whose famous slips of speech caused the word “Spoonerism” to be added to the English language, died at Oxford on Saturday, aged 86.
A Spoonerism is thus described in the new Oxford Dictionary: “An accidental transposition of initial letter, &c., of two or more words, e.g., has just received a blushing crow; for real enjoyment give me a well-boiled icycle.”


Dr. Spooner strenuously denied the authorship of many of these slips of speech; Oxford undergraduates have been accused of foisting “Spoonerisms” upon him and Mr. Robert Seton, the Recorder of Devizes, once confessed to his share of responsibility in perpetuating the legend. He said that the doctor made only one “Spoonerism” in his life. That was in the early part of 1879.
“He stood up in the pulpit to announce a hymn. He gave it out as ‘Kinkering kongs their titles take.’ [note 1] There was a hush, and the doctor calmly repeated his slip. I am afraid that we all burst into laughter. I think the doctor then saw his mistake. It was the talk of Oxford in those days, and we used to spend hours in inventing ‘Spoonerisms.’ I collaborated with a friend who afterwards became the Rev. Arthur Sharp, and it was he who brought out a book of ‘Spoonerisms.’”
The inventors of “Spoonerisms” made the doctor say he was going from London to Oxford by the “town drain;” and to speak of a camel passing through “the knee of an idol,” of a cat “occupewing his pie,” of being tired of addressing “beery wenches,” and of its being “kistomary to cuss the bride.”
Much more probable was the doctor’s alleged reply to a young lady who asked him if he liked bananas. He is said to have retorted, “I’m afraid I always wear the old-fashioned nightshirt.”


As an undergraduate he was asked what he thought of his rooms in New College, and he is said to have replied, “It is rather noisy, because Hell and Bedlam live in the rooms below.” This was a reference to two undergraduates Bell and Headlam, the latter of whom is now the Bishop of Gloucester.
Dr. Spooner, it is further reported, once announced a famous hymn as “Shoving leopard of Thy sheep,” [note 2] and referred to Queen Victoria as “queer old dean,” and to have greeted an aged relative with the remark that he was glad to see her looking as “hairless and cappy” as ever.
There is another story illustrating his absent-mindedness. He is said to have spent a whole day in looking for a public house named “The Dull Man,” at Greenwich, when the place he really wanted was “The Green Man,” at Dulwich.
One day, it is said, Dr. Spooner was going on a journey, and his wife went to the station to see him off. Just before the train left, the doctor solemnly kissed the porter and handed a sixpence to his wife. But it is only fair to say that Dr. Spooner strenuously denied the statement.

In New College is 600 years old, published in The Illustrated London News of April 1979, Tom Miller explained:

The late Sir Julian Huxley, who taught at New College in the 1920s and knew Spooner well, thought that the Warden uttered spoonerisms in the strict sense very rarely, although he probably did announce a hymn in chapel as “Kinkering Congs their titles take”. Huxley believed that Spooner suffered from what neurologists call “paraphasia”, or problems with association. These did not stop him from being an efficient warden and a considerable, although not outstanding, scholar. He set some kind of record by spending 63 continuous years in residence at New College, as undergraduate, fellow, dean and warden.

The earliest instance of the word spoonerism that I have found is from The Western Morning News (Devon) of Tuesday 28th May 1895; in the column University Intelligence, a journalist writes that, at Oxford, Spooner’s name

is a byword among undergraduates, and has been lately brought more prominently before their notice in the pages of the “Isis,” the undergrad’s magazine. He is the subject of a scurrilous, though distinctly humorous, sketch, under the heading of “Isis Idol” for the week, into which is cleverly worked his chief characteristic of, figuratively speaking, putting the cart before the horse in whatever utterance he makes—a peculiarity which has given rise to the word “Spoonerism.” The well-known story of his giving out in chapel the hymn “Kinquering congs their titles take,” will render further mention unnecessary.

It is interesting that, on the one hand, Spooner had already at that time earned a reputation for making those errors “in whatever utterance he ma[de]” and that, on the other hand, the only slip of speech the newspaper cites is the very one he is known to have made.

The Nottingham Evening Post (Nottinghamshire) of Friday 17th February 1899 expressed doubts as to the veracity of this reputation when mentioning

that most unlucky Oxford Don, to whose credit are placed the verbal lapses known as “Spoonerisms”—most of them much too good to be true.

The earliest attestation of spoonerism used without reference to Spooner that I have found is from The Sporting Times (London) of Saturday 10th June 1899:

In a chapel in Cambridgeshire on Sunday before the Derby the minister, in giving out his text, perpetrated the following Spoonerism: “The foxes of the air have their nests, the birds have their holes,” &c. [note 3] The consequence was that the entire congregation planted not only their bottom dollars but their very shirts on Flying Fox, and on Wednesday morning informed their pastor that if his tip did not come off they would be like the end of the text—have no place to lay their beads.
Since the result his reverence has been seriously considering whether or not he shall start as “The Inspired Spiritual Prophet.’’

As already mentioned in the Lancashire Daily Post of 1st September 1930, Spooner was not only reputedly prone to verbal errors, but also, supposedly, absent-minded. An article about Oxford in The Bedfordshire Times and Independent of Saturday 25th January 1896 made him short-sighted as well:

If you don’t know what a “Spoonerism” is, ask the next Oxford man you come across. There are plenty of them in Bedford during the holidays.
For the benefit of the ignorant, however, it may be briefly said that “Spooner” is a Divinity Professor. What manner of man he is may be judged from the following. He’s very short-sighted, for one thing; and one night when he was out dining somewhere, he took up his fork, dabbed it into the lily-white hand of the lady next him, saying with a smile “My bread, I presume.”

These alleged incidents gave an additional, but ephemeral, sense to the word spoonerism, according to The Sporting Times of Saturday 26th August 1899:

You remember those instances of practical “spoonerism” (chucking claret on to spilt salt, “my bread, I believe,’’ &c., &c.). Well, Our Amiable Cynic told someone the other day how that he happened to drop a new hat out of the window of a flying express, and hit immediately on the idea of flinging after it his hat-box bearing name and address, and recovered the hat thereby.
He met that someone in the North this week.
“Confound you and your yarns, Mr. Cynic,” gasped the man; “the other day I was travelling in the Scotch express, and owing to a sudden lurch dropped my hat-box out of the window. I remembered what you had said, and immediately flung my hat out after it, and — — — —.”



1Kinkering kongs” for: “Conquering kings their titles take
                                             From the lands they captive make…

2Shoving leopard” for: “Loving Shepherd of Thy sheep,
                                             Keep me, Lord, in safety keep…

3The foxes of the air have their nests, the birds have their holes” – cf. for example the gospel of Matthew, 8:20:

(King James Version – 1611)
And Jesus saith vnto him, The foxes haue holes, and the birds of the aire haue nests: but the Sonne of man hath not where to lay his head.

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