CLOSE
iStock
iStock

9 Spoonerisms (and Other Twists of the Tongue)

iStock
iStock

You know how sometimes when you're talking, your mouth is moving faster than your brain and you inevitably transpose the beginning parts of a couple of words? You might be trying to say, "You have a cozy little nook here," but what comes out is, "You have a nosy little cook here." Well, there's a word for that: It's called a Spoonerism.

They're named after the Reverend William Archibald Spooner, who was apparently notorious for his accidental wordplay. He would only ever admit to one of them, but there have been some pretty famous and entertaining Spoonerisms over the years; here are just a few of them.

1. RUNNY BABBIT

Runny Babbit: A Billy Sook was the last children's book written by Shel Silverstein and, as the title indicates, the book is crammed full with Spoonerisms: "Runny Babbit lent to wunch and heard the saitress way, 'We have some lovely stabbit rew, our special for today.'"

2. HOOBERT HEEVER


Herbert Hoover is kind of a funny name to begin with: Try saying his name 20 times without messing it up at least once. While it's all fun and games to most of us, it can be a career-threatening mistake when you're a radio announcer. Harry von Zell was talking about Hoover's life and times as part of a birthday tribute. After making it through a pretty lengthy script, Zell's tongue could take no more and he accidentally referred to the President as "Hoobert Heever."

"Fortunately the windows were not operative," von Zell later said. "They were fixed windows or I would have jumped out." For the record, von Zell's career was just fine. And technically, this is a "kniferism," not a Spoonerism, since it reverses the middle syllables of the words instead of the beginning sounds.

3. STIFFORD CRAPPS

BBC announcer McDonald Hobley ran into the same problem as Harry von Zell: a politician with a tongue-twister of a name. At the time, Sir Stafford Cripps was the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Imagine the embarrassment when Hobley introduced him as "Stifford Crapps."

4. DON'T PET THE SWEATY THINGS

George Carlin fans are probably familiar with his quip, "Don't sweat the petty things and don't pet the sweaty things." (It's sound advice, really.)

5. KINKERING KONGS THEIR TITLES TAKE

Many Spoonerisms have been attributed to Reverend Spooner, but the only one he would admit to was this one, which confused the title of a popular hymn: "Kinkering Kongs Their Titles Take." That should be, "Conquering Kings Their Titles Take."

6. APOSTLE PEALE


Norman Vincent Peale was a Protestant preacher who was quite vocal about his dislike for Adlai Stevenson. In response, Stevenson intentionally used a Spoonerism in a speech once, saying: "Speaking as a Christian, I find the Apostle Paul appealing and the Apostle Peale appalling."

7. RINDERCELLA

Archie Campbell, a writer and the star of the long-running variety show Hee Haw, loved to use Spoonerisms in skits on the show. One of the most famous ones was Campbell's telling of RinderCella: a girl who slopped her dripper, of course. There was also Beeping Sleauty.

8. BASS-ACKWARDS

Abraham Lincoln was quite fond of wordplay. He once wrote in a letter, "He said he was riding bass-ackwards on a jass-ack through a patton-crotch," (though we don't know whether Lincoln came up with that himself or was actually quoting someone).

9. THE CANADIAN BROADCORPING CASTRATION

This one is somewhat of an urban legend. It's never been recorded except on a record album called Pardon My Blooper, but it was recreated for the album and not recorded from the original alleged mishap. True or not, the joke that someone once said live on the air that the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation was "the Canadian Broadcorping Castration" struck a chord with people; the poor CBC is sometimes still referred to as such.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
language
How to Say Merry Christmas in 26 Different Languages
iStock
iStock

“Merry Christmas” is a special greeting in English, since it’s the only occasion we say “merry” instead of “happy.” How do other languages spread yuletide cheer? Ampersand Travel asked people all over the world to send in videos of themselves wishing people a “Merry Christmas” in their own language, and while the audio quality is not first-rate, it’s a fun holiday-themed language lesson.

Feel free to surprise your friends and family this year with your new repertoire of foreign-language greetings.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Big Questions
What’s the Difference Between a Gift and a Present?
iStock
iStock

It’s that time again when we’re busy buying, wrapping, and giving them. Sometimes we call them gifts, sometimes presents. Is there a difference?

The words come to us from different language families. Gift comes from the old Germanic root for “to give.” It referred to an act of giving, and then, to the thing being given. In Old English it meant the dowry given to a bride’s parents. Present comes from the French for "to present." A present is the thing presented or bestowed. They were both in use for the idea of something undergoing a transfer of possession without expectation of payment from the 13th century onward.

The words gift and present are well-matched synonyms that mean essentially the same thing, but even well-matched synonyms have their own connotations and distinctive patterns of use. Gift applies to a wider range of situations. Gifts can be talents. You can have the gift of gab, or a musical gift. Gifts can be intangibles. There is the gift of understanding or the gift of a quiet day. We generally don’t use present for things like this. Presents are more concrete. A bit more, well, present. If your whole family gave donations to your college fund for your birthday would you say “I got a lot of presents”? It doesn’t exactly sound wrong, but since you never hold these donations in your hand, gifts seems to fit better.

Gift can also be an attributive noun, acting like an adjective to modify another noun. What do you call the type of shop where you can buy presents for people? A gift shop. What do you call the basket of presents that you can have sent to all your employees? A gift basket. Present doesn’t work well in this role of describing other nouns. We have gift boxes, gift cards, and gift wrap, not present boxes, present cards, and present wrap.

Gift appears to be more frequent than present, though it is difficult to get accurate counts, because if you compare occurrences of the noun present with the noun gift, you include that other noun present, meaning the here and now. However, the plural noun presents captures only the word we want. Gifts outnumbers presents in the Corpus of Contemporary American English by four to one.

Still, according to my personal sense of the words, present—though it may not be as common—is more casual sounding than gift. I expect a child to ask Santa for lots and lots of presents, not many, many gifts. But whether it’s gifts or presents you prefer, I wish you many and lots this year, of both the tangible and intangible kind.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios