In this week’s Dispatches from the Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle delves into the life of the man immortalised by the spoonerism
Archibald Spooner (1844-1930) was a physically striking man. An albino with pink skin and white hair, he became affectionately known as the Child by students at New College, the Oxford college of which Spooner became warden in 1903. (His wife Frances became known as the Madonna, hence their inevitable collective nickname of Madonna and Child.) By all accounts, Spooner was a kindly man who insisted, in the face of indignant opposition, that the college’s war memorial should list the names of the German dead alongside the college members who had given their lives in the Great War.
But this has all been lost from the popular consciousness – if it ever resided there – and Spooner’s name and legacy have firmly centred on the ‘spoonerism’ – a word attested from The Globe magazine in London from 1900, and defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘an accidental transposition of the initial sounds, or other parts, of two or more words’. Interestingly, though, the OED’s next citation for the word ‘spoonerism’, from a Notes and Queries article of 1923, suggests that Spooner may have given his name to a word-game that was much older than him:
In my childhood … an old cousin used to entertain me with what we now call spoonerisms, but which she termed morowskis … Her mother (who dated from the eighteenth century) had taught her the game, stating that the original perpetrator of these strange transpositions was a Polish Count, who was well known in London society of that period.
Whether the Polish Morowski was an inadvertent transposer, like Spooner, or whether he deliberately engaged in such verbal jeu d’esprit, like Ronnie Barker, we cannot say. I cannot even find any evidence that a Count Morowski ever existed in London in the eighteenth century.
But then there is surprisingly little evidence that Archibald Spooner was ever guilty of the verbal slips to which he gave his name. R. H. Robbins could find only two examples of a true spoonerism – that is, a verbal error arising from the transposition of initial letters of adjacent words – that could be confidently attributed to Spooner: ‘So you will be abily easle to chase the train of thought’ and an occasion on which he apparently misquoted Tennyson: ‘Come into the garden, Maud / For the black gnat-bite has flown.’ But Spooner’s own daughter claims she never heard her father utter a single spoonerism. Most of them seem to have been the invention of his amused students, such as the classic ‘You have hissed my mystery lectures; you have tasted a whole worm; you must leave at once by the town drain.’
What he does appear to have done, however, was commit what have been described as ‘physical spoonerisms’ – such as pouring claret over some salt he’d spilt on the tablecloth, or apologising to a party of visitors for the darkness of a staircase before switching off all the lights. He was clearly eccentric, but the verbal faux pas he committed tended to fall short of the ‘true’ spoonerism – though they’re nevertheless amusing. He reportedly once stopped a colleague and enquired, ‘Was it you or your brother who was killed in the Great War?’ Whether he ever actually ended a sermon by saying, ‘In the sermon I have just preached, whenever I said Aristotle, I meant St Paul’, perhaps doesn’t matter.
I started thinking about Archibald Spooner and the spoonerism because I’ve been reading a wonderful little book, Spoonerisms, Sycophants, Sops by Donald Chain Black. According to Black, Spooner was also suspected by colleagues (including the biologist, Julian Huxley) of suffering from other brain dysfunctions, including ‘anticipation’ (using words too early in sentences) and ‘perseveration’ (repeating phrases unnecessarily). Black’s book is a feast for the word-lover, incidentally, and well worth tracking down in bargain second-hand bookshops or online. I also learned from Black the word pornoseptuagenarian for a dirty old man, and genuglyphics for ‘the practice of decorating the female knees in order to make them more erotic’. You live and learn.
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Oliver Tearle is a lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.
Image: Caricature of Mr WA Spooner (author: Leslie Ward, 1898), via Wikimedia Commons.