The Reverend Spooner

William Archibald Spooner (July 22, 1844 – August 29, 1930) was an Oxford don who has become immortal due to the linguistic phenomenon named after him.

Born in London, he studied at Oswestry School and New College, Oxford. He was ordained deacon in the Church of England in 1872 and priest in 1875.

Spooner remained at New College for more than sixty years, serving as Fellow (1867), Lecturer (1868), Tutor (1869), Dean (1876–1889), and Warden (1903–1924). He lectured on ancient history, divinity, and philosophy (especially Aristotle’s ethics).

Spooner was well liked and respected, and his “reputation was that of a genial, kindly, hospitable man.”

He published little of significance but was highly respected. Students and colleagues remembered him with affection, and their memoirs portray him as intelligent and wise, stern but kind, the model of the kindly Oxford don.

Julian Huxley in 1942 wrote that Spooner was “a good scholar and a good teacher” with “that rare quality which I can only describe as saintliness.” In a 1970 memoir Huxley wrote, “In spite of [his eccentricities] . . . , he became a worthy and respected Warden, and successfully administered the College’s affairs for many years.”

Historian Arnold Toynbee said that Spooner “looked like a rabbit, but he was as brave as a lion. He was prepared at any moment to stand up to anybody, however formidable.” 

However, as admirable as these qualities may seem, it is the linguuistic version of what is now euphemistically called a “wardrobe malfunction”.

For as Otto Jerspersen observes in his magisterial “The Growth and Structure of the English Language”,no literature in the world abounds as English does in characters made ridiculous to the reader by the manner in which they misapply or distort ‘big words’, and cites among others, Sheridan’s Mrs. Malaprop, Fielding’s Mrs.Slipslop, Dicken’s Sam Weller and Shakespeare’s Mistress Quickly.

However, all of them were created for comic effort in plays and novels, but sometimes it cames naturally, as with that most famous of word muddlers, the Reverend Spooner himself, whose habitual transposition of sounds – metaphasis is the word for it – made him famous in his own lifetime and gave a new word to the language.

A little known fact about the Reverend was that he was an albino. He was also famously boring, as he himself admitted when he wrote plaintively of his sermons in his diary: “They are so apt to be dull”.

But all was naught before his facility for turning phrases on their heads. Among his most famous utterances invariably attributed to him are: “Which of us has not felt in his heart a half-warmed fish?” and to a delinquent undergraduate: “You have hissed all my mystery lectures, and were caught fighting a liar in the quad. Having tasted two worms, you will leave by the next town drain”.

At an optician’s, he is said to have asked: “Have you a signifying glass?” and when told they did not, replied: “Oh well, it doesn’t magnify.”

But as Bill Bryson in his Mother Tongue cites Spooner’s biographer, William Hayter (in Spooner, 1978) as noting, Spooner became so well known for these transpositions that it sometimes impossible to know what he said and what were devised in his name. He is known to have said “in a dark glassly” and to have announced at a wedding ceremony that a couple were “loifully jawned” but is altogether possible that he said very few of the spoonerisms attributed to him and the genuine utterances weren’t nearly as comical as those he was credited with, like the almost apocryphal “Please sew me to another sheet. Someone is occupewing my pie” or as another version has it, “Mardon me padam, this pie is occupewed. Can I sew you to another sheet?”

The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (3rd edition, 1979) lists only one substantiated Spoonerism – “The weight of rages will press hard upon the employer”. Spooner himself admitted to uttering “Kinkering Congs Their Titles Take” in a 1930 interview.

What is certain that Spooner suffered from a kind of metaphasis of thought, if not always of word. These are generally well attributed.

To be continued……


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