9 Spoonerisms (and Other Twists of the Tongue)

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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.

13 Alternative Lyrics From “The Twelve Days of Christmas”

craftyjoe/iStock via Getty Images Plus (pear tree), snegok13/iStock via Getty Images Plus (peacock)
craftyjoe/iStock via Getty Images Plus (pear tree), snegok13/iStock via Getty Images Plus (peacock)

First published in English in 1780, "The Twelve Days of Christmas" (actually the 12 days after Christmas) is thought to have originated in France as a children’s forfeit game with ever more elaborate gifts added to the collection, verse by verse, as a test of memory. Whatever its origins may be, however, as the carol grew in popularity throughout the 19th century, numerous versions and variations of its lyrics began to emerge.

Some of these differences still survive in different versions sung today: The traditional “five gold rings” are sometimes described as “five golden rings,” and while some performances describe what “my true love gave to me,” others say the gifts were “sent to me.” But these kinds of subtle differences are nothing compared to some of the gifts in the song’s earlier incarnations.

1. "A Very Pretty Peacock"

One early version of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" was recorded by the Scottish poet and artist William Scott Bell in 1892. Although most of Bell’s lyrics are identical to what we sing today, in his version each verse concludes not with “a partridge in a pear tree,” but with a considerably more ostentatious “very pretty peacock upon a pear tree.”

2. "Four Canary Birds"

In the original 1780 version, the “four calling birds” are instead described as “four colly birds,” colly—literally “coaly”—being an old English dialect word meaning “soot-black.” By the mid-19th century, however, the word colly had largely fallen out of use, leaving several Victorian editions of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" to come up with their own replacements. “Colour’d birds” and even “curley birds” were used in some editions, while an exotic “four canary birds” were added to the lyrics of one version. The now standard “four calling birds” first appeared in the early 1900s.

3. And 4. "Eight Hares A-Running" and "Eleven Badgers Baiting"

In 1869, an article appeared in an English magazine called The Cliftonian that described a traditional Christmas in rural Gloucestershire, southwest England. The author of the piece wrote that he had heard some local carol singers singing a curious Christmas song, which he noted for the “peculiarity and the utter absurdity of the words.” After outlining the first two of "The Twelve Days of Christmas," he went on to explain that the carol “proceeds in this ascending manner until on the twelfth day of Christmas the young lady receives … [an] astounding tribute of true love”—among which are “eight hares a-running” and “eleven badgers baiting.”

5., 6., 7., And 8. "Seven Squabs A-Swimming," "Eight Hounds A-Running," "Nine Bears A-Beating," And "TEN Cocks A-Crowing"

One of the earliest American versions of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" was listed in The American Journal of Folklore in 1900. Credited to a contributor from Salem, Massachusetts, and dated to “about 1800,” there are no pipers, drummers, maids, or swans here (and lords and ladies had a number change). Instead, in their place are “ten cocks a-crowing,” “nine bears a-beating,” “eight hounds a-running,” and “seven squabs a-swimming.”

9. And 10. "Ten Asses Racing" and "Eleven Bulls A-Beating"

An edition of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" included in Folk Songs From Somerset published in 1911 discarded the “pipers piping” and “lords a-leaping” in favor of “eleven bulls a-beating” and “ten asses racing.” In fact, not even the partridge in the pear tree made the final cut here: In its place was a “part of a mistletoe bough.”

11. and 12. "Ten Ships A-Sailing" and "Eleven Ladies Spinning"

In an 1842 edition of Specimens of Lyric Poetry, out went the “ten drummers drumming” and the “eleven lords a-leaping” (downgraded to only nine lords, still a-leaping) and in came “ten ships a-sailing” and “eleven ladies spinning.” Not only that, but this edition also explained in a footnote how "The Twelve Days of Christmas" might once have been used: “Each child in succession repeats the gifts of the day, and forfeits for each mistake. The accumulative process is a favourite with children.”

13. "An Arabian Baboon"

An alternative Scots version of "The Twelve Day of Christmas" was reported in use in Scotland in the first half of the 19th century, before finding its way into a collection of Popular Rhymes of Scotland published in 1847. Although there are a handful of similarities between this version and the version we’d sing today (“ducks a-merry laying” and “swans a-merry swimming” both make an appearance), relatively little of what we’d recognize remains intact. “The king sent his lady on the first Yule day,” is the new opening line, and many of the gifts are given in sets of three rather than as part of a larger 12-part sequence—but it’s what the gifts themselves are that is the most striking. Alongside the swans and ducks, the king sends his lady “a bull that was brown,” “a goose that was gray,” “three plovers,” “a papingo-aye” (an old Scots dialect word for a parrot, although occasionally translated as peacock)—and, just when things can’t get any stranger, “an Arabian baboon.”

Merriam-Webster Declares They Its Word of the Year

artisteer/iStock via Getty Images
artisteer/iStock via Getty Images

Merriam-Webster’s 2019 Word of the Year is one that you probably use about a dozen times a day: they.

It’s been a big year for the gender-neutral pronoun, whose definition in Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary was expanded to include its use as a singular nonbinary pronoun in September.

CNN notes that searches for they on the Merriam-Webster site have increased 313 percent over last year’s data, but the Word of the Year isn’t determined by growth alone. As Merriam-Webster senior editor and lexicographer Emily Brewster explained on WRSI, a word also needs to have considerable search spikes throughout the year in order to qualify.

“That says to us that a word is significant for that particular year; that it has some kind of important association with the actual year,” she said.

And they definitely had several landmark search spikes in 2019. According to CNN, look-ups peaked when nonbinary model Oslo Grace walked in Paris Fashion Week in January, when U.S. Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal disclosed that her child was gender-nonconforming in April, and during Pride celebrations around the world in June (this year was also the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots). Many major style guides, including the Associated Press, have recognized they as an accepted singular pronoun in the past few years.

In addition to the Word of the Year, Merriam-Webster also published their top 10 most-searched terms, which paint an intriguing portrait of 2019 in review. There were political terms like quid pro quo, impeach, and clemency, the word the—which spiked after The Ohio State University tried to trademark it in August—and the enigmatic word camp, which baffled many a fashion blogger as the theme of the Met Gala in May.

[h/t CNN]

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