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Tips of the Slung

Listening to an NPR story on the 2012 Florida Republican Primary the other day, I heard the reporter identify one of the candidates as “Ritt Momney”.  He immediately corrected himself, but I got to thinking about these kinds of slips of the tongue, and remembered about Spoonerisms-and other amusing varieties of wordplay

English contains somewhere around 620,000 words, many more than any other language.  That makes a whole range of humorous word use (and mistakes) so much easier and so much more likely.

Spoonerisms

“Spoonerisms” take their name from the Rev. W.A. Spooner (1844-1930),  Dean and Warden of New College at Oxford, England.  Spooner was famous for swapping word sounds to make humorous and, sometimes, telling new phrases: like the time he told a student who had spent the semester having a good time at the expense of his studies that he had “Tasted the Worm!”

Examples of Spoonerisms are pretty much endless.  Some of the better ones:

In a toast to Queen Victoria, Spooner is reputed to have said, “Three cheers for our queer old dean.”

During WWI, he announced, “When our boys come home from France, we shall have the hags flung out.”

And he referred to England’s farmers as “Noble tons of soil.”

Oxymorons

“Oxymorons”, of course, are phrases that contradict themselves.  They are usually amusing and sometimes make a strange kind of sense-even poetry.

John Milton in Paradise Lost, for example, described Hell as “darkness visible“.

Then there are the more or less famous oxymorons:  military intelligence, jumbo shrimp, paid volunteer, and Microsoft works.

Malapropisms

In his 1775 comedy, The Rivals, playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan introduced the world to Mrs. Malaprop.  She got laughs from such lines as, ” . . . illiterate (should be obliterate) him from your memory,” and “she’s as headstrong as an allegory (instead of alligator) on the banks of the Nile.”

So a malapropism is simply use of a wrong-but similar sounding-word.  These can be pretty funny:

Like the worker who describes his colleague as a vast suppository of knowledge.

Or the officer who complained of the personnel “spreading dysentery among the ranks.”

About Gary Boyer

Gary Boyer is currently Director of the Writing Support Center at the Keuka College Center for Professional Studies, Accelerated Studies for Adults Program (ASAP). He is also the Acting Director of Admissions for the college and a faculty member, serving as an Instructor of English in the Humanities Division.

View all posts by Gary Boyer →

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