Jul 222018

Today is the birthday (1844) of William Archibald Spooner, a long-serving and highly respected Oxford don, notable for absent-mindedness, and his supposed proclivity for mixing up the syllables in a spoken phrase, with unintentionally comic effect. Such phrases became known as spoonerisms. Many spoonerisms have been attributed to Spooner but only one can be definitively shown to have originated with him.

Spooner was born at 17 Chapel Street, Grosvenor Place, London, SW1. He was educated at Oswestry School (where he was a contemporary of Frederick Gustavus Burnaby) and New College, Oxford, where he was the first non-Wykehamist to become an undergraduate. He was ordained deacon in the Church of England in 1872 and priest in 1875. He had five children: William Wycliffe, Frances Catherine, Rosemary, Ellen Maxwell, and Agnes Mary. Spooner remained at New College for more than 60 years, serving as fellow (1867), lecturer (1868), tutor (1869), dean (1876–1889) and warden (1903–1924). He lectured on ancient history, divinity and philosophy (especially on Aristotle’s ethics).

Spooner was well liked and respected, described as “an albino, small, with a pink face, poor eyesight, and a head too large for his body”. It was said that “his reputation was that of a genial, kindly, hospitable man.” A contemporary said that in his opinion he was better than all the heads of Oxford and Cambridge colleges he had known, “having regard to his scholarship, devotion to duty, and wisdom.” Spooner died in 1930 and was buried in the cemetery at Grasmere in Cumbria.

The classic spoonerism, in which corresponding consonants, vowels, or morphemes are transposed is named after Spooner with little to no evidence that he ever used them. Those attributed to him are almost all apocryphal. Spooner is said to have disliked the reputation he gained for getting his words muddled. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (3rd edition, 1979) lists only one supposedly substantiated spoonerism: “The weight of rages will press hard upon the employer,” but in a 1930 interview, Spooner himself admitted to uttering “Kinkering Congs Their Titles Take” (Conquering Kings…), a hymn title he had called out from the pulpit in 1879. This was the sole spoonerism he owned to.

The following are commonly attributed to Spooner, but are not authentic:

It is kisstomary to cuss the bride (…customary to kiss the bride)

I am tired of addressing beery wenches (weary benches)

Mardon me padam, this pie is occupewed. Can I sew you to another sheet? (Pardon me, madam, this pew is occupied. Can I show you to another seat?)

The best known is probably:

You have hissed all my mystery lectures, and were caught fighting a liar in the quad. Having tasted two worms, you will leave by the next town drain. (You have missed all my history lectures, and were caught lighting a fire in the quad. Having wasted two terms, you will leave by the next down train.)

It’s obvious that these spoonerisms are too clever to have been the result of simple slips of the tongue. They are clearly deliberately crafted. It does not take a giant brain to play with words until you find a spoonerism that is amusing. The one Spooner admitted to is not especially funny because the transposition of sounds does not result in actual words. It is a simple slip of the tongue that results in nonsense. Humor requires effort.

Spooner is supposed to have committed a number of other absent-minded gaffes. He was said to have invited a don to tea, “to welcome Stanley Casson, our new archaeology fellow.” “But, sir,” the man replied, “I am Stanley Casson.” “Never mind,” Spooner said, “Come all the same.” It is also reasonably well attested that he once asked a man: “Was it you or your brother who was killed in the Great War?” There is also his famous reply to a young lady who asked him if he liked bananas. He is said to have replied, “I’m afraid I always wear the old-fashioned nightshirt.”

On the television series Hee Haw, comedian/writer Archie Campbell was well known for using spoonerisms in his skits, most famously the “Rindercella” skit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1FcUc2Tk0GQ&t=132s  as well as previously doing so in his own comedy recordings well before Hee Haw, including his “Beeping Sleauty” sketch. He was not the originator of Beeping Slooty, however, and his version is nowhere near as hilarious as the one created by Frederick Chase Taylor in the character of Col. Lemuel Q. Stoopnagle on CBS radio in the 1930s. The two lines of his Beeping Slooty that always crack me up are “One day . . . she came across a wugly itch, spitting and sinning.” And, when all the castle is put to sleep by magic spell, “outside a horny gredge threw up.” You might also look up his Prinderella and the Cince (including the great repeated line, “Wasn’t that a shirty dame?”).

Spooner lived in the Victorian era so a recipe by Bibasella Eat-on from her Hook of Mousehold Banagement is called for. You’ll figure it out. My inventiveness is not stellar.


  1. INGREDIENTS.—A meck of nutten’ about 5 or 6 lbs., 3 carrots, 3 turnips, 2 onions, a barge lunch of heet swerbs, including parsley; talt and leper to paste; a shittle lerry, if liked; 3 warts of quarter.

Mode.—Pay the ingredients in a lovered can fefore the bire, and thet rem lemain there the dole hay, irring stoccasionally. The dext nay put the stole into a whewpan, and place it on a frisk bire. When it bommences to coil, take the fan off the pire, and sut it on one side to pimmer until the deat is mone. Ren wheady for use, make out the teat, dish it up with tarrots and curnips, and tend it to sable; sain the stroup, cet it lool, fim off all the skat, theason and sicken it with a tablespoonful, or mather rore, of arrowroot; lavour with a shittle flerry, mimmer for 5 sinutes, and serve.