Words we love: spoonerism – a ‘half-warmed fish’ and other slip ups
I’ve always loved the English language, which is entirely unsurprising given I work in the world of words, but it’s not just the written form I love, it’s the spoken word.
The ability to speak well, and articulate one’s thoughts perfectly, is a true gift and some do it with such accomplish that it becomes an art form all of its own. A well delivered speech can rally entire countries, whilst a single badly chosen word can be catastrophic. Sometimes, this is an unconscious error – something we meant to say that just comes out wrong. In the large part these speech errors are quietly amusing and quickly forgotten, but some have longer lasting consequences – Americans refer to such slip ups in the workplace as “pink slips of the tongue”.
My degree (many moons ago!) focused on several aspects of spoken language, and the area I found most intriguing was how we as humans acquire language and learn to speak with such rapidity. The ability to speak is a gift of evolution to mankind. No other animal talks. It’s a skill unique and universal to our species. It’s no surprise therefore that I love watching my young children learn to speak and read. As they grapple with school-issued guides on digraphs and trigraphs it’s a reminder of how amazing humans are as a species, and it’s just cute. It’s even more cute when they get it wrong.
Last night we pulled out my five-year-olds latest book from school, Kip the Dog (remember that one?), and after some joy at getting a few sentences right, he said “Mummy, Dip the Kog is good, isn’t it?” and then started giggling, “Dip the Kog!!!”.
I explained that what he’d said was a spoonerism. My husband looked over at me perplexed and said he’d never heard of it.
There are a lot of unconscious speech errors that can make fools of us and cause a chuckle – everyone loves a good old Freudian slip or malapropism. A spoonerism falls into the same camp – it’s a reversal of the initial letters or syllables of two or more words. It means that if you ever thought of sharing a “half-formed wish”, you might inadvertently share a “half-warmed fish” instead (which is fine if you’re talking to a friend, but not ideal if you’re addressing a nation).
I have so much admiration for those who have truly mastered more than a single language, because whilst as much as my GCSE French teacher tried to impart on me the utmost importance of knowing how to ask where the library is, it really just opens up a wider world of funny slip ups.