Every once in a while, all of us has what we call a “slip of the tongue” where we get our words jumbled up, or even jumble up the letter or sounds in different words of our sentence. One day, when I arrived home a bit late, I told my wife I had been “catting with Chasey” when I meant to say “Chatting with Casey.” Linguist call this type of error metathesis, and it happens when we switch sounds in words, and one take the place of another. Metathesis comes from a Greek word which meant “to place differently.” It is also called, more simply, transposition. These are usually the transposing of word beginnings and although we are aware of having done this, it was not intentional (contrasted with intentionally playing with words).
So how did these slips become known as spoonerisms? Why not forkisms? How about napkinisms? Well, the word spoonerism has nothing to do with spoons, or eating, or anything related to the dinner table, although we probably commit a lot of spoonerisms while dining. The word comes from Reverend William A. Spooner, who was warden of New College in Oxford in from 1903 to 1924. Apparently, Spooner had a tendency to transposition, or metathesis, and would do so almost constantly, such as during sermons he would give on Sundays. Some of the more famous examples of his slips of the tongue are our queer old dean for our dear old queen and you hissed my mystery lecture for you missed my history lecture. He also is claimed to have asked is the bean dizzy when he meant to ask is the Dean busy. My favorite spoonerism attributed to him is it is now kisstomery to cuss the bride. It seems likely that most of the spoonerisms attributed to Spooner were made up by students.
Why Spooner, or anyone else, commits such mistakes is not really completely known. We might do it when we are nervous, and Spooner is said to have had a nervous disposition. We might do it also when we are tired, or confused, or, of course, when we’ve been “catting with Chasey” and had more than our share of drink. Often, such slips of the tongue, like other types of speech errors are called “Freudian slips,” meaning that they are slips that reveal some unconscious belief, or emotion. While it may be possible to “psychoanalyze” certain slips, the idea that they are always evidence of some hidden truth is absolute hokum. When Spooner said “is the bean dizzy” was he revealing his secret belief that the dean was, in fact, a bean that was prone to lightheadedness or, perhaps, dumb? Is cussing the bride related to his negative feelings about marriage? No, probably not.
We can understand some reasons why we commit spoonerisms and other speech errors. One problem is that we do not form our sentences completely in our mind before we start to say them. We start speaking even before we have planned the sentence and know how we will end it. We have nothing more than a rough idea of how our sentence will be structured and we unconsciously place in the correct (or incorrect) terms without having planned where they will go. If you look at metathesis or spoonerisms, you can see this. The sentence is not really jumbled or incomprehensible. The word class of the error words is maintained and the meaning of the sentence is easy to interpret, the error easily recognizable. Transposition may also be more common than other types of speech errors, besides anticipation, where we use a word that we planned to use later earlier in a sentence so that the sentence, being out of order, makes little sense. We are planning at the same time we are speaking. If we did not do this, our speech would be slow and constantly interrupted while we pause for thought for planning what were are going to say next and how we are going to say it. Even so, we often stop in the middle of a sentence and begin again, when we realize that the sentence is going to be awkward or have syntax errors. Thus, it becomes clear that spoonerisms, instead of revealing deep unconscious psychological goings-on, are simply a product of how speech works. The fact that we can speak so quickly and fluently without any planning is amazing and the fact that a few errors creep in, even though these errors are amusing, just shows how truly difficult the task of speaking is. It is a wonder more errors are not made in our day to day speech.