Desperately Seeking Spoonerisms: The Decline of Word Play in Literature

“Spoonerism” may sound like a dirty word, but that’s only because it’s employed so rarely in contemporary literature that we’ve become unfamiliar with the term. Named after turn-of-the-20th-century Oxford University professor William Archibald Spooner, who was apt at muddling his words (e.g. meaning to say “Conquering Kings Their Titles Take” yet pronouncing “Kinkering Congs”), spoonerism refers to word play that substitutes letters in a word or phrase to lend it humorous meaning, whether intentionally or not. Major authors of the 20th century have toyed with spoonerisms, yet they seem to have since diminished with marked noticeability in contemporary prose.

William Spooner, looking a bit tongue-tied
William Spooner, looking a bit tongue-tied
A classic spoonerism appears in Boris Vian’s 1947 novel Froth on the Daydream, in which one of the characters is obsessed with a philosopher named Jean-Pulse Heartre. Going further back, even Shakespeare was a fan: Caliban from The Tempest is a metathesis (the linguistic term for spoonerism) for the word “cannibal.”
Froth on the Daydream is riddled with spoonerisms
Froth on the Daydream is riddled with spoonerisms
Other literary titans like James Joyce and Vladimir Nabokov also relished the fun one could have with a reader through the deliberate melange of words. In Finnegans Wake, Joyce writes “they were yung and easily freudened,” while Lolita contains the exchange:

“What’s the katter with misses?” I muttered (word-control gone) into her hair.

“If you must know,” she said, “you do it the wrong way.”

“Show, wight ray.”

“All in good time,” responded the spoonerette.

While there may be no concrete method for pinpointing why the spoonerism has fallen out of fashion, Andrew Elbon, a literary scholar, writes in The Romantic Review, “To be sure, the kind of playfulness that characterizes a text such as Robert Desnos’s Rrose Selavy, for example, is not new to the literary tradition. However, the fascination and the persistence of the spoonerism…deserves special consideration, especially in the theoretical context which has granted it a more than trivial status.” Thus, its decline at least leaves plenty of room for brave authors to come forth and breathe new life into this waning literary device.