Weekend Word Wrap: Spoonerisms

One of the comments we got in our Weekend Word Wrap on malapropisms was from a reader named Leslie who semi-suggested we tackle the subject of spoonerisms, as well.

But before we get to Revered Spooner, let's first go back to antiquity, because that's where the trouble starts.

The Romans took the Greek hero Herakles, transposed the inner part of the word, and started calling him Hercules (sort of the way many of us say nucular instead of nuclear), thus creating what's known as a metathesis. Now I don't mind a metathesis like nucular, but so much as mumble the word excetera for etcetera and I'm liable to start searching around the room for a large mallet. (I've often wondered if they abbreviate it ect. instead of etc.)

A spoonerism is also a kind of metathesis, only instead of switching parts of the word, the beginnings of two separate words get flop flipped. The trick here, of course, is that the resulting new order must make sense. It's not enough just to thype tusly, because that's plain silly, right?
The word "spoonerism" was coined by a British albino educationalist and Anglican clergyman named William Archibald Spooner (1844-1930), whose mind worked faster than his tongue. As a result, he'd wind up raising a toast to Her Royal Highness, Queen Victoria, by proclaiming, "Three cheers for our queer old dean!"

Many people, like Dr. Spooner, have a tendency to switch parts of words around when they become nervous or agitated. I recall being on a first date once, palms sweating, anxious to say all the right things, and muttering, "Yeah, but who for can get that?" Not a pure spoonerism, but close. Here are some of my favorites -- and as usual, we'd love to hear yours.

Picture 21.pngRental Deceptionist

Cop porn

Sword witch

You've tasted two worms

Lack of pies

How Do You Stress the Word: THANKSgiving or ThanksGIVing?

Here’s something else to stress about for Thanksgiving: where to put the stress in the word Thanksgiving.

If you’re from California, Iowa, or Delaware, you probably say ThanksGIVing, with the primary stress on the second syllable. If you’re from Georgia, Tennessee, or the Texas Panhandle, you probably say THANKSgiving, with the primary stress on the first syllable.

This north-south divide on syllable stress is found for other words like umbrella, guitar, insurance, and pecan. However, those words are borrowed from other languages (Italian, Spanish, French). Sometimes, in the borrowing process, competing stress patterns settle into regional differences. Just as some borrowed words get first syllable stress in the South and second syllable stress in the North, French words like garage and ballet get first syllable stress in the UK and second syllable stress in the U.S.

Thanksgiving, however, is an English word through and through. And if it behaved like a normal English word, it would have stress on the first syllable. Consider other words with the same noun-gerund structure just like it: SEAfaring, BAbysitting, HANDwriting, BULLfighting, BIRDwatching, HOMEcoming, ALMSgiving. The stress is always up front, on the noun. Why, in Thanksgiving alone, would stress shift to the GIVE?

The shift to the ThanksGIVing pronunciation is a bit of a mystery. Linguist John McWhorter has suggested that the loss of the stress on thanks has to do with a change in our concept of the holiday, that we “don’t truly think about Thanksgiving as being about thankfulness anymore.” This kind of thing can happen when a word takes on a new, more abstract sense. When we use outgoing for mail that is literally going out, we are likely to stress the OUT. When we use it as a description of someone’s personality ("She's so outgoing!"), the stress might show up on the GO. Stress can shift with meaning.

But the stress shift might not be solely connected to the entrenchment of our turkey-eating rituals. The thanksGIVing stress pattern seems to have pre-dated the institution of the American holiday, according to an analysis of the meter of English poems by Mark Liberman at Language Log. ThanksGIVing has been around at least since the 17th century. However you say it, there is precedent to back you up. And room enough to focus on both the thanks and the giving.

TAKWest, Youtube
Watch Boris Karloff's 1966 Coffee Commercial
TAKWest, Youtube
TAKWest, Youtube

Horror legend Boris Karloff is famous for playing mummies, mad scientists, and of course, Frankenstein’s creation. In 1930, Karloff cemented the modern image of the monster—with its rectangular forehead, bolted neck, and enormous boots (allegedly weighing in at 11 pounds each)—in the minds of audiences.

But the horror icon, who was born 130 years ago today, also had a sense of humor. The actor appeared in numerous comedies, and even famously played a Boris Karloff look-alike (who’s offended when he’s mistaken for Karloff) in the original Broadway production of Arsenic and Old Lace

In the ’60s, Karloff also put his comedic chops to work in a commercial for Butter-Nut Coffee. The strange commercial, set in a spooky mansion, plays out like a movie scene, in which Karloff and the viewer are co-stars. Subtitles on the bottom of the screen feed the viewer lines, and Karloff responds accordingly. 

Watch the commercial below to see the British star selling coffee—and read your lines aloud to feel like you’re “acting” alongside Karloff. 

[h/t: Retroist]


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