Tuesday, May 01, 2007


A spoonerism occurs when two familiar terms in a sentence are mutually transposed or switched. The effect is generally comical, but sometimes more profound. The reference is to the English don, the Rev. William Archibald Spooner (1844-1930), warden of New College, Oxford.

Because Spooner’s slips and quips were achieved orally—he did not commit them to writing—we are dependent on the reports of others. As a result some ascriptions are clearly apocryphal.
With its ramblings, the following gem seems authentic: "Poor soul, very sad; her late husband you know, a very sad death—eaten by missionaries—poor soul."

Still, I prefer the snappy quality of this variation on the words of St. Paul: "In a dark, glassly." This gnomic saying is worth pondering. Was Spooner anticipating night goggles, whose vitreous lenses enable one to see at night? Or is it just an observation about the strain of trying to see in the dark, an effort making one’s eyes glaze over, so to speak? But maybe none of these is correct. Anyone who feels the onset of cataracts knows what he meant.

Many spoonerisms originate as slips of the tongue. Most of these lack profundity, as "lack of pies" (for "pack of lies").

Some spoonerisms cut deeper, though. Anthony Burgess’ variation on a Dickens title—"A Sale of Two Titties"--seems merely comical—until one remembers that toughs among the Revolutionary mobs would lop off portions of the bodies of the guillotined aristocrats, using them as ornaments.

Oscar Wilde remarked that "work is the curse of the drinking classes." The idea that those who drink should form a whole social class is intriguing—if implausible.

Curiously (for a Christian) T. S. Eliot chose to invert a precept of St. Paul, saying "The spirit killeth, but the letter giveth life." I suppose the idea is that gassy generalities are unhelpful, while precision is always welcome.

Here are some that I thought of:

The motto of a supremely conceited person would be "Nothing alien to me is human."

"Politics is an extension of war by other means." In fact, this assertion follows logically from Clausewitz' original observation, for it war is an extension of politics, it follows that they are really the same thing and each is an extension of the other.

"I have sworn on the altar of tyranny, eternal hostility against every form of God over the mind of man." This could have been Stalin’s motto (see previous posting).

"Up to now the philosophers have merely changed reality. The important thing is to understand it." This is a variation on Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach. The idea is that most philosophical schemes subject reality to a Procrustean bed in order to make it fit their schemes. Representing reality accurately, perhaps for the first time, represents a much greater challenge.

"Whatever doesn’t make me stronger kills me." This precept riffs off a Nietzschean tag currently popular among young people. The idea envisaged by the revised version is this. We are all, as Blaise Pascal remarked, under a sentence of death, with but a temporary reprieve. Making us stronger extends that reprieve; without this buttressing we resume our downward glide path to extinction.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

I so much like Spoonerisms than Freudian slips. I wonder if Freud knew he had been co-opted? Likely not. His conflicted Unconscious was probably unaware, repressing others' ideas, and forming new trinities of experience. Ego-Id-Superego. Is that Plato's Charioteer and Two Steeds, or the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? I wonder if Spoonerisms are a form of glossolalia? Forked tongues, twisted tongues, or tongue-tied?

12:55 PM  

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