Spooner gave us ‘tinglish errors’ | Sunday Observer

Spooner gave us ‘tinglish errors’

You may not understand the headline at once. ‘Tinglish errors’ is a spoonerism. On a closer examination you will realize that the first letters of the two words have been exchanged to produce a funny meaning. A spoonerism is an expression in which the first letters of two of the words are swapped over: for example, “tasted two worms” for “wasted two terms” and “scoop of boy trouts” for “troop of boy scouts.”

The credit of creating spoonerisms goes to Reverend William Archibald Spooner (1844-1930) who was a master of verbal somersault. He has left us a legacy of mirth and laughter. Spooner was one of the few men who enriched the dictionary with a new word: “Spoonerism.” Spooner was the warden of New College, London. He was an English scholar who reputedly made such errors in speaking although many of those now attributed to him are probably apocryphal. He had a 60-year association with Oxford University where he lectured in history, philosophy, and divinity. He also served as a Dean of the University.

Spooner was a small-made man with a pink face, poor eyesight and a head too large for his small body. He had the reputation of being an absent-minded professor. One day, he told his students, “You have hissed my mystery lecture” instead of saying “You have missed my history lecture.” However, he did not create spoonerisms deliberately. All his verbal errors were made accidentally transposing the initial sounds or letters of two or more words. On another occasion he invited a Faculty member to tea, “To welcome our new archaeology Fellow.” The invitee raised a mild protest saying that he was the new archaeology Fellow. Spooner said, “Never mind. Come all the same.”

Ardent fans

Some of my teachers, especially, T. Max Perera, were ardent fans of spoonerism. He would walk into the class and ask the students, “Have you seen a well-boiled icicle?” It took us some time to get at the meaning: “A well-oiled bicycle.” Later, he explained that the use of spoonerism was a ludicrous way of English speakers who got their words mixed up.

Spooner seems to have known that he was an absent-minded professor. After a church service he told the congregation, “In the sermon I have just preached, whenever I said Aristotle I meant St. Paul.” However, Spooner was not a silly person who forgot his facts. The Greeks had a word for this type of verbal impediment: “Metathesis.” It meant the act of transposing sounds or things around. Spooner got his words mixed up, especially, when he was agitated. Once he reprimanded a student telling him, “You hissed my mystery lecture.” Then he made it worse by saying, “You have tasted two worms.” (You have wasted two terms)

During World War I he told his students, “When our boys come home from France, we will have the hags flung out” instead of saying “flags hung out.” Then he praised the farmers as “Noble tons of soil.” What he wanted to say was “Noble sons of toil.” While delivering a sermon he said, “Our Lord is a shoving leopard” instead of “loving shepherd.” One day, he attended a wedding and told the bridegroom, “Son, now it is kisstomary to cuss the bride” and the guests burst out laughing. What he wanted to say was, “Now it is customary to kiss the bride.”

On another occasion he saw a stranger seated in the wrong place. Spooner told him, “I believe you’re occupewing my pie. May I sew you to another sheet?” (= I believe you’re occupying my place. May I show you another seat?)

Fertile ground

English, unlike any other language, is a fertile ground for the proliferation of spoonerisms. This is because English is an expanding canvas with more than one million words. It is still growing. According to Richard Lederer, a noted English scholar, English is growing at 450 words a year. With such a vast vocabulary, English speakers are likely to make accidental transpositions of letters or syllables producing more and more spoonerisms. Lederer said, “Spooner gave us tinglish errors and English terrors at the same time.”

Spooner never made such slips deliberately to evoke laughter. All his verbal slips were quite accidental. In later years some of his students and others started inventing spoonerisms. According to Lederer, the popular spoonerism “A scoop of boy trouts” for “a troop of boy scouts” is an invention probably by one of his students. He cites a few more authentic spoonerisms. At a naval review Spooner said, “This vast display of cattle ships and bruisers” (instead of battle ships and cruisers). On another occasion, he asked a school official’s secretary “Is the bean dizzy?” (Is the dean busy?) Before he died at the age of 86, Spooner told an interviewer that he could recall only one of his spoonerisms. That was “Kinkering Congs Their Titles Take.” What he meant was “Conquering kings take their titles.”

According to Lederer, “Kinkering Congs Their Titles Take” – ,announcing the hymn in New College Chapel (1879) – sounds reasonable, but “Sir, you have tasted two whole worms; you have hissed all my mystery lectures and been caught fighting a liar in the quad, you will leave Oxford by the next town drain,” seems utterly contrived. Had Spooner been an ornithologist (someone who deals with the study of birds) Spooner might well have described himself as a “word-botcher” (=bird watcher).

Most of us make verbal slips accidentally. They are not crimes. However, we cannot forget Spooner who enriched the language with spoonerisms. As a tribute to him, let me quote one of his authentic spoonerisms:

“This audience of beery wenches,” he said addressing a meeting at a women’s college. The audience consisting of women did not take offence for calling them “wenches” (meaning servants) because they knew it was another verbal slip of the tongue!

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