AskDefine | Define spoonerism

Dictionary Definition

spoonerism n : transposition of initial consonants in a pair of words

User Contributed Dictionary



Named after the Reverend W. A. Spooner (1844-1930), who is supposed to have habitually made such slip-ups.


  • spo͞onʹərĭzəm, /"spu:n@rIz@m/
  • /ˈspuːnərɪzəm/


  1. A phrase in which the initial (usually consonantal) sounds of two or more of the main words are accidentally transposed.
    The spoonerism "The queer old dean" (instead of "the dear old Queen") is attributed to Rev. Spooner.


A phrase in which the initial (usually consonantal) sounds of two or more of the main words are accidentally transposed

Extensive Definition

A spoonerism is a play on words in which corresponding consonants, vowels, or morphemes are switched (see metathesis). It is named after the Reverend William Archibald Spooner (18441930), Warden of New College, Oxford, who was notoriously prone to this tendency.
While spoonerisms are commonly heard as slips of the tongue resulting from unintentionally getting one's words in a tangle, they are considered a form of pun when used purposely as a play on words.

Examples of spoonerisms

Many 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."
Quotations attributed to Spooner include:
  • "The Lord is a shoving leopard" ("loving shepherd")
  • "It is kisstomary to cuss the bride" ("customary to kiss")
  • "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?")
  • To a student: "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" ("missed ... history," "lighting a fire," "wasted two terms," "down train")
  • To a lady at a college reception: "You'll soon be had as a matter of course" ("mad as a Hatter, of course")
  • "Let us glaze our asses to the queer old Dean" ("Let us raise our glasses to the dear old queen")
  • "We'll have the hags flung out" ("flags hung")
  • "a half-warmed fish" ("half-formed wish")
  • "Is the bean dizzy?" ("dean busy")
  • "Go and shake a tower" ("take a shower")
  • "a well-boiled icicle" ("well-oiled bicycle")

Modern usage

In modern terms, a spoonerism is any changing of sounds in this manner. While simple enough to do, a clever spoonerism is one that results in a funny phrase or sentence. "Flutterby" is an oft-cited example of a spoonerism that has not lost its original meaning. A well-known example is "I'd rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy" (variously attributed to W. C. Fields, Tom Waits, and most commonly Dorothy Parker), which not only shifts the beginning sounds of the word lobotomy, but the entire phrase "frontal lobotomy". The preceding phrase was further developed by Dean Martin who said, "I would rather have a FREE bottle in front of me than a PRE-frontal lobotomy.
Another modern usage of spoonerisms is the children's book Runny Babbit: A Billy Sook, which is the last children's book by Shel Silverstein.
When a digraph such as 'sh', 'ch', 'ph', etc... is used, both letters are moved to preserve the original verbal sound. For example, "Cheer for Dennis" would be "Deer for Chennis", or "Bloody Rush" would be "Ruddy Blush".
Best described or illustrated to new English speakers would be the transposition of the first staccato or plosive in a word pair such as peer dark.
In a situation where profanity is unsuitable, spoonerism is sometimes used to tone down the intensity of the expression. "Bass ackwards", "Nucking Futs", and "Shake a tit" (itself a risque phrase) are all common examples of these kinds of spoonerisms.
The Capitol Steps, a political satire group, use spoonerisms in a segment of their show called "Lirty Dies and Scicious Vandals".
Zilch the Torysteller is a Renaissance fair actor who tells fairy tales completely in Spoonerisms.
The stories I tell have a bit of a twist to them.
I spalk in toonerisms. Ah, I talk in spoonerisms. Citching one's swonsonants fack and borth Worning your Turds around. It's serfectly pimple. You just have to tink thaster than you falk
American Country-Western singer/comedian Archie Campbell is famous for his stories of RinderCella (Cinderella), where the princess "slopped her dripper" (dropped her slipper).
A well-worn insult in speeches of the college debating society type is to describe an opponent as "the sort of person the Rev. Spooner would have described as 'a shining wit'".

Kniferism and forkerism

Douglas Hofstadter uses the nonce terms kniferism and forkerism to refer to interchanging the nuclei and codas, respectively, of syllables. (Example: a British TV newsreader who, in a story about a crime scene, referred to the police removing a 'hypodeemic nerdle'.) Spoonerisms exchange the onsets.
Another example is an incident that happened to veteran newscaster (and Timex watch pitchman) John Cameron Swayze. During an interview on The Mike Douglas Show, he stated that on a radio show, he was making reference to a fellow journalist as a "noted woman columnist" but accidentally said "noted woolen communist".

Spoonerism in other languages

Spoonerisms are prolific in a few other languages. For example, the quirks of the selection of phonemes lend themselves well to this purpose.


The Danish term for spoonerism is "bakke snagvendt", which is itself a spoonerism of "snakke bagvendt" (i.e., talk backwards). The term is derived from a song by the puppet stars of the children's TV-show Kaj og Andrea. The song itself contains mainly spoonerisms based on the swapping around of one or two phonemes rather than syllables or morphemes.


Spoonerisms in Dutch are made in the same manner as in English. Examples:
  • met vereende krachten ("with joined forces") → met verkrachte eenden ("with raped ducks")
  • tot de dood ons scheidt ("until death do us part") → tot de schijt ons doodt ("until the shit kills us")
  • ik heb het onderspit gedolven ("I suffered a defeat") → ik heb den Dolf ondergespit ("I have buried Adolf")
  • een beetje scheef ("a bit crooked") → een scheetje beef ("a fart-quiver")


In the Philippines, a common spoonerism is the local tongue twister; pitumpu't pitong puting tupa (seventy-seven white sheep). But due to the fast pronunciation, the t and p of the word tupa (sheep) is interchanged, pronouncing the word puta which means prostitute.


Finnish sananmuunnokset (literal translation 'word transformations' does not capture the spoonerism hidden in the original Finnish compound - sananmuunnokset becomes munansaannokset, which roughly means dick-gettings) are mainly used in jokes. Before transformation a Finnish spoonerism is something innocent and after transformation something obscene. A Finnish spoonerism is usually performed by telling the innocent version and letting the listener figure out the outcome. One example would be hillitön kuppi (hysterical cup) which can be changed into kulliton hippi (dickless hippie)


The French contrepèterie is also facilitated by a strong Rabelaisian tradition for coarse, if witty, humor. Contrepéteurs excel in finding in seeming innocuous phrases the elements for the lewd and humorous. According to French tradition—and unlike the examples provided below—one should never utter nor write the second part of a spoonerism. Only the first part should be said, leaving readers or listeners trying hard to find the second funny part. Actually giving the solution of a spoonerism is considered distasteful.
This is somewhat similar to certain English language jokes involving spoonerisms, in which one asks questions like "What is the difference between a rooster and a lawyer?" and provides only the non-spoonerised part of the answer ("One clucks defiance..."), leaving the usually-vulgar punch-line ("...the other fucks the clients") for the listener to come up with, and is far more subtle without the explicit joke formulation.
A famous example is the weekly column "Sur l'Album de la Comtesse" in the French weekly satirical journal Le Canard Enchaîné.
- For example, Les nouilles cuisent au jus de cane : les couilles nuisent au cul de Jeanne (which translates roughly as, the noodles are cooking in a duck broth: the balls hurt Jane's ass). The s and l in jus and cul are silent in French.
One from French comedian Coluche: Quand les Nippons bougent, la Chine se dresse : quand les nichons bougent, la pine se dresse (which translates as, when the Japanese stir, China reacts : when the boobs jiggle, the wood rises).
Similarly, the French word for a tumble dryer, un sèche-linge, could give rise to a spoonerism un lèche-singe which would mean a person who licks monkeys.
A French radio announcer was reputed to say, instead of Les populations immenses du Cap (the immense population of Cap-Haïtien): Les copulations immenses du Pape. (The Pope's immense copulations).
Others include (interpretation left to reader):
Madame, je vous laisse le choix dans la date
Taisez-vous en bas
Arriver à pied par la Chine


The German Schüttelreim ('shake rhyme') is a rhyme where the initial consonants (or even the following vowels) of the last two stressed syllables are exchanged with one another. For example, Es klapperte die Klapperschlang', — bis ihre Klapper schlapper klang. (by Heinz Erhardt) - The rattlesnake rattled, until its rattles sounded flabbier.
A popular spoonerism in German derives from the German adaptation of the TV-show Saturday Night Live (German Title: RTL Samstag Nacht). A series of sketches was aired which had the title Kentucky schreit ficken. This spoonerism of Kentucky Fried Chicken means: Kentucky yells fuck. This was a parody on TV ads for McDonald's which used spoonerisms.


In Greek, when someone has accidentally committed spoonerism (Σαρδάμ in Greek), it's common to apologize by saying "Γλώσσεψα τη μπέρδα μου", which is in fact a spoonerism for "Μπέρδεψα τη γλώσσα μου". It roughly translates to saying "I tongued my slip" instead of "I slipped my tongue". The word sardam is derived from a person named Madras [Μαδράς], who was, like Spooner, prone to verbal mistakes.


Hebrew speakers sometimes make fun of word pairs, where the two words are somehow similar, by flipping letters between the two to produce a pair of meaningless words, but such that the listener can easily figure the original meaning. Examples: First letter flipping -- "Zahag Nahir" (instead of "Nahag Zahir" () meaning "Careful driver") and "Chipor Tzirbena" (actually creating a cleaner form of the foul "Tzipor Chirbena" () meaning "A bird has defecated"). Two letter flip -- "Kesh VaChetzet" (instead of "Chetz VaKeshet" () meaning "An arrow and a bow"). Last letter flip -- "Chatzi Goom Aroof" (instead of "Chatzi Goof Aroom" () meaning "Half body is naked").
The Israeli hip-hop band "Hadag Nachash (or Nahash)," is a spoonerism. The group's name literally means "The Snake Fish" ( — "Ha" meaning "the", "Dag" meaning "fish", and "Nachash" meaning "snake"). It is also, however, a Hebrew spoonerism. In Israel, people who have only recently gotten their driver's licence place a tag on their back window with the words: "Nahag Chadash" ( — "new driver"). There is also a joke, in which a Kibbutz volunteer tells in bad Hebrew that his job there is "Lezayen Metim" () meaning "To fuck dead people," instead of "Lemayen Zeytim" () meaning "To sort olives."


The Hungarian kecskerím (goat rhyme) is a rhyming form where there are two rhyming words in each line, and in the second line, the starting letters of the rhyming words are exchanged, like "Ne ülj le a kőre, pandúr, / Megkarmol egy pőre kandúr!" (Don't sit on the stone, policeman, as a naked tomcat will scratch you!). Another example of Hungarian spoonerism is creating word pairs like "Vali fejlesztése" (Vali's development) and "Lali fejvesztése" (Lali's beheading).


In Icelandic the closest word to spoonerism is "stafarugl", -a jumble of letters. This word is more commonly used for anagrams. One humorous Icelandic spoonerism is about buying popcorn and a Coca Cola drink: "Mig langar að fá kokk og póp, takk fyrir". The humour of this statement is most fully appreciated with an understanding of both Icelandic and English.


Jokes based on spoonerisms are quite popular in Polish; they are collectively called Gra półsłówek ('A play with monosyllables'). They often require a bit of imagination in order to find out which letters need to be changed to get a new meaning. Very often the new meaning is more or less rude. The game's name itself is a spoonerism — switching the bolded letters results in Sra półgłówek, which means 'A half-dumb is shitting'. Some Polish sports commentators are also well-known for their spoonerisms, made unwittingly in the heat of the action.

Serbian, Bosnian, or Croatian

Spoonerisms are easy to construct in Serbian language, Bosnian language, or Croatian language, since the relationship between the alphabet and the phoneme system is relatively close. The new meanings are often rude. Example: pita od višanja ('a cherry pie') turns into vita od pišanja ('she went slim by pissing'). Sentences of comparison (see: Swedish) can also be heard, such as Bolje da ti se zavrti u glavi nego da ti se zaglavi u vrtu ('It is better to have a vertigo than to have your thing stuck in the garden'), or Bolje da čovek priča o kolima, nego da o čoveku kolaju priče (roughly It is better when a man is talking about cars, than when stories are circulating about the man, a Spoonerism involving three words rather than two).


In Spanish, a spoonerism is usually used as a euphemism. For example, "Una cabra de bolones" instead of "Una bola de cabrones" ("a granite goat" instead of "a bunch of assholes"). When an unintentional spoonerism is committed, it is common to say "Se me lenguó la traba (My stuck got tongued)," a spoonerism for "Se me trabó la lengua" (My tongue got stuck).


Similar jokes are told in Swedish, conventionally stating which one of two similar-sounding options the average person would prefer, as in: Bättre en back läsk i hallen än ett läskigt hack i ballen. meaning "Rather a crate of sodas in the hall than a horrible hack to the balls." Other examples include Bättre att borsta katten än att kasta bort den ("Better to brush the cat than throwing it away") and Bättre att frysa i tältet än att tälta i frysen ("Better to freeze in your tent than tenting in your freezer."), Bättre att pissa i en stupränna än att stupa i en pissränna ("It's better to piss in a rain gutter than to fall in a urinal trough") and Hellre en rövare i Polen än en påle i röven ("Rather a robber in Poland than a pole in the ass"). Another example is Hellre en Daim i handen än en hand i dajmen ("Rather a Daim in your hand than a hand up your ass").
The phenomenon is commonly referred to as bala taklänges, which translates into "beaking spackwards."


Spoonerisms are the basis for many jokes, riddles, and other word play. Vietnamese, being a language with many monosyllabic words, is especially suited to this type of word play. Spoonerisms of polysyllabic words often cannot significantly change the words' meanings, and thus are easily deciphered. As a result, their value for word play is severely limited. Spoonerisms of monosyllabic words, however, can completely alter the meaning of an entire sentence. In Vietnamese, there exist many complex jokes and riddles involving the interchange of initial sounds, vowels, or even tones over multiple steps, with each intermediate step being a valid, clever construction.


spoonerism in German: Schüttelreim
spoonerism in French: Contrepèterie
spoonerism in Hungarian: Rím#Kecsker.C3.ADm
spoonerism in Dutch: Spoonerisme
spoonerism in Polish: Spuneryzm
spoonerism in Finnish: Sananmuunnos
spoonerism in Swedish: Spoonerism
spoonerism in Thai: คำผวน
spoonerism in Vietnamese: Nói lái
spoonerism in Turkish: Spoonerism

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

Irish bull, abuse of terms, acronym, acrostic, amphibologism, amphiboly, anacoluthon, anagram, avyayibhava, back formation, bull, calembour, catachresis, clipped word, compound, conjugate, construction, corruption, dvandva, dvigu, endocentric compound, equivocality, equivoque, exocentric compound, fluff, folk etymology, formation, grammatical error, hypercorrection, hyperform, jeu de mots, logogram, logogriph, malaprop, malapropism, marrowsky, metagram, mispronunciation, missaying, misusage, palindrome, paronomasia, paronym, play on words, pun, punning, solecism, tatpurusha, word form, wordplay
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