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An example of spoonerism on a protest placard in London, England: "Buck Frexit" instead of "Fuck Brexit".

A spoonerism is an occurrence in speech in which corresponding consonants, vowels, or morphemes are switched (see metathesis) between two words in a phrase.[1][a] These are named after the Oxford don and ordained minister William Archibald Spooner, who reputedly did this.

They were already in use by the 16th century by the author François Rabelais and called contrepèteries.[2] 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"). [3]

An example is saying "The Lord is a shoving leopard" instead of "The Lord is a loving shepherd" or "runny babbit" instead of "bunny rabbit." While spoonerisms are commonly heard as slips of the tongue, 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 from 1903 to 1924 of New College, Oxford, who was notoriously prone to this mistake.[4][5][6] The Oxford English Dictionary records the word as early as 1900.[7] 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...[8]

An article in the Daily Herald in 1928 reported spoonerisms to be a "legend". In that piece 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' ["Conquering Kings their Titles Take"]...Later, a friend and myself brought out a book of "spoonerisms"'[9]

In 1937, The Times quoted a detective describing a man as "a bricklabourer's layer" and used "Police Court Spoonerism" as the headline.[10]

A spoonerism is also known as a marrowsky or morowski, purportedly after an 18th-century Polish count who suffered from the same impediment.[11][7]


Caricature of Charles H. Workman. 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."

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[4] that "The Kinquering Congs Their Titles Take" (in reference to a hymn)[12] 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.[13] 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."[14] They are as follows:

  • "Three cheers for our queer old dean!" (while giving a toast at a dinner, which Queen Victoria was also attending)[14]
  • "Is it kisstomary to cuss the bride?" (as opposed to "customary to kiss")[14]
  • "The Lord is a shoving leopard." (instead of "a loving shepherd")[14]
  • "A blushing crow." ("crushing blow")[14]
  • "A well-boiled icicle" ("well-oiled bicycle")[14]
  • "You were fighting a liar in the quadrangle." ("lighting a fire")[14]
  • "Is the bean dizzy?" ("Dean busy")[14]
  • "Someone is occupewing my pie. Please sew me to another sheet." ("Someone is occupying my pew. Please show me to another seat.")[14]
  • "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.")[14]

Popular use/culture[edit]

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


  • The Washington, D.C. political comedy sketch group Capitol Steps[15] had a long-standing tradition of performing a routine called "Lirty Dies"[16] 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).
  • Comedian Jane Ace was notorious for her spoonerisms and other similar plays on words during her run as star of the radio sitcom Easy Aces.[17]


  • 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]
  • In 2005, HarperCollins published the late humorist Shel Silverstein's Runny Babbit: A Billy Sook, a book about a rabbit whose parents "Dummy and Mad" gave him spoonerized chores, such as having to "Dash the wishes" (for "wash the dishes").[19]
  • 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.

— Cleary, Brian P. Rainbow Soup: Adventures in Poetry. Minneapolis, MN: Carolrhoda, 2004.
  • In D.H. Lawrence & Susan his Cow (1939), literary critic William York Tindall described behavioral psychologists as "occupied with nothing more spiritual than pulling habits out of rats".[20] (This quip is commonly cited to Douglas Bush, who used it in a lecture[21] two years later.)



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 was unable to reply as the show ran out of time.[30]

False etymology[edit]

Spoonerisms are sometimes used in false etymologies. For example, according to linguist Ghil'ad Zuckermann, some wrongly believe that the English word butterfly derives from 'flutter by'.[31]: p.78 

Kniferisms and forkerisms[edit]

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.[32] 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";[33] and during a live broadcast in 1931, radio presenter Harry von Zell accidentally mispronouncing US President Herbert Hoover's name as "Hoobert Heever."[33][34]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 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."


  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. ^ 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.
  3. ^ 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."
  4. ^ a b "Names make news". Time. 29 October 1928. Archived from the original on 14 January 2009. Retrieved 20 September 2008.
  5. ^ "Spoonerism Message Lost in Translation". Toledo Blade. 3 November 1980.
  6. ^ Compare: "Obituary: Dr WA Spooner". The Manchester Gurdian. Guardian News & Media Limited. 1 September 2010 [1 September 1930]. Retrieved 23 May 2022 – via The Guardian archive. In 1879 it was a favourite Oxford anecdote that Spooner from the pulpit gave out the first line of a well-known hymn as 'Kinkering Kongs their titles take.' [...] The anecdote is well enough authenticated, but according to most people who knew Spooner well that was the only "Spoonerism" he ever made – the essence of a "Spoonerism" being, of course, lack of intent, – though later when, thanks to indefatigable undergraduate and alas! graduates and dignified Fellows of colleges, the legends had become legion, he often used deliberately to 'indulge in metathesis,' to live up to his reputation.
  7. ^ a b "spoonerism". Oxford English Dictionary (Online ed.). Oxford University Press. (Subscription or participating institution membership required.)
  8. ^ "Every Schoolboy Knows", The Times, Dec 8, 1921, pg. 7.
  9. ^ '"Spoonerisms" a Legend' in Daily Herald 28/9/1928.
  10. ^ The Times, 29 October 1937, pg. 9.
  11. ^ Chambers Dictionary 1993 ISBN 0-550-10255-8
  12. ^ Bartlett, John (1992) [1855]. Justin Kaplan (ed.). Bartlett's Familiar Quotations (16th ed.). Little, Brown and Company. pp. 533. ISBN 0-316-08277-5.
  13. ^ Quinion, Michael (28 July 2007). "Spoonerism". World Wide Words. Retrieved 19 September 2008.
  14. ^ 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.
  15. ^ "The Capitol Steps – We put the MOCK in Democracy". capsteps.com.
  16. ^ "Capitol Steps – Lirty Dies !". capsteps.com.
  17. ^ Sterling, Christopher H., ed. (2003). Encyclopedia of Radio 3-Volume Set. Routledge. p. 1696. ISBN 1-57958-249-4. Retrieved 1 March 2011.
  18. ^ "Stoopnagle's Tale is Twisted, by Ken James". Archived from the original on 6 October 2008. Retrieved 3 November 2008.
  19. ^ Rogak, Lisa (2007), A Boy Named Shel, Thomas Dunne Books, ISBN 978-0-312-35359-9
  20. ^ Tindall, William (1939). D.H. Lawrence & Susan his Cow. Columbia University Press. p. 196. Retrieved 25 June 2023.
  21. ^ Bush, Douglas (1953). "Life, Letters, and Education". In Smithberger, Andrew T. (ed.). Essays British and American. Houghton-Mifflin. p. 465. Retrieved 25 June 2023. originally given as a lecture at Smith College (Nov 13 1941) and Wellesley College (Dec 2 1941), Massachusetts.
  22. ^ Christopulos, J., and Smart, P.: Van der Graaf Generator – The Book, page 128. Phil and Jim publishers, 2005.
  23. ^ Smyth, David (26 November 2020). "Virtually Famous: Ritt Momney". Evening Standard. Retrieved 2 October 2020.
  24. ^ "Music – Review of Com Truise – Galactic Melt". BBC. 5 July 2011. Retrieved 9 July 2017.
  25. ^ "Mord Fustang – About". Retrieved 5 July 2021.
  26. ^ "Loyle Carner: Why the South London rapper's album may have you in tears". NME. 18 January 2017. Retrieved 17 August 2018.
  27. ^ Bassil, Ryan (20 May 2016). "ADHD Isn't My Disorder, It's More Like My Superpower". Noisey. Vice. Retrieved 2 October 2019.
  28. ^ Hind, John (17 November 2018). "Loyle Carner: 'I grew up with ADHD, and for me cooking is close to meditation'". The Guardian. Retrieved 2 October 2019.
  29. ^ "Interview: Carson Pace of 2022 Mathcore Sensation The Callous Daoboys". 28 February 2023. Retrieved 19 September 2023.
  30. ^ "Jack Benny's "Grass Reek" Punch Line Discovered After 65 Years". cleanslatefilms.com. 19 March 2015. Retrieved 15 June 2021.
  31. ^ Zuckermann, Ghil'ad (2003), Language Contact and Lexical Enrichment in Israeli Hebrew. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 9781403917232 / ISBN 9781403938695 [1]
  32. ^ Hofstadter, Douglas (1995). Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies: Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Human Thought. NY: Basic. p. 117.
  33. ^ 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.
  34. ^ "snopes.com: Harry von Zell and Hoobert Heever". Retrieved 2 February 2009.

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