Living Columns & Blogs

For much needed laughter, play with words

The Rev. William Spooner became famous for his slips of the tongue or what we now call spoonerisms, such as his “The Lord is a shoving leopard.”  In the April 1896 edition of Vanity Fair, Leslie Ward drew this caricature of the beloved British minister.
The Rev. William Spooner became famous for his slips of the tongue or what we now call spoonerisms, such as his “The Lord is a shoving leopard.” In the April 1896 edition of Vanity Fair, Leslie Ward drew this caricature of the beloved British minister. Vanity Fair/April 1896

“There's room for one more,” Tom admitted.

Did you catch this play on words? Did you laugh?

Today let's have a little fun with words as we explore the world of wellerisms, Tom Swifties and spoonerisms.

These are names for the deliberate mix-ups and the slip-of-the-tongue mangling of words or their letters. What results is so funny that, well, there's no option but to laugh, unless you are an English perfectionist. But who among us hasn't had a word slip-up or two?

To avoid losing you, dear Readers, here's another brain-teasing laugh.

“This Saturn V rocket booster, now in need of restoration, was designed for the NASA moon missions,” said Fred Haise, apologetically.

Get it? APOLOgetically, as is in the Apollo Moon launches. In this usage, apologetically is a Tom Swifty, a phrase in which a quoted sentence is linked by a pun to its attribution. In the Haise quote, the “ly” adverb is linked both properly and punningly to his quote.

Before I move to another example, I must make apologies to Fred Haise because he never said that quote, but he is a Mississippi Coast local and I know he has a sense of humor.

Fred Wallace Haise Jr., reared in Biloxi and a mover and shaker in creation of the Infinity Science Center at NASA Stennis Space Center, was the lunar module pilot on the Apollo 13 Moon Mission in 1970. An oxygen tank explosion and the astronauts' heroic and dangerous return to Earth has been dramatized on screen and elsewhere. So, my apollogies (sic) to Fred for taking advantage of history.

Here's a few more swifty examples:

"This boat is leaking,” said Tom balefully.

“I want to stop by the mausoleum,” said Tom cryptically.

“I'm losing my hair,” Tom bawled.

The name, Tom Swifty, comes from the Tom Swift series of children's books published from 1910 to present day. The Tom Swift creator found ways around simply saying “said” by using creative “ed” verbs and by adding descriptive adverbs. This use of language became known as a Tom Swifty.

Tom Swifties are also a form of wellerisms. Language experts like to describe wellerisms as examples of humor so dry they can be brittle. In any case, they are a wonderful play on words.

The name comes from the Charles Dickens' 1830s character Sam Weller. He was Mr. Pickwick's good-natured servant who, along with his father, often followed well known sayings, cliches and proverbs of their era with humor or punning conclusions. One Pickwick example: “It's over, and can't be helped, and that's one consolation, as they say in Turkey, ven they cuts the wrong man's head off.”

Here's several modern examples from Wikipedia and other cyber sources:

“We'll have to rehearse that,” said the undertaker as the coffin fell out of the car.

“I stand corrected,” said the man in the orthopedic shoes.

“It's all coming back to me now,” Captain Smith remarked after he spat into the wind.

Are you laughing? I love twisting and turning words and phrases. Hopefully, you do to.

Several days ago, I laughed my fool head off in the living room of a Gulfport friend. She wanted to watch the season finale of a show unfamiliar to me but I was game and quickly picked up the cast of characters. When the show ended rather lacklusterly, I turned to her:

“I think you are mistaken. This can't be the season finale because there is no hiff clanger.”

She stared at me, “What did you say?”

I began repeating it but before I got to “hiff clangor” I realized my flub. Several minutes of attempts to repeat it ended up with eye-watering, breath-sucking laughs.

“Hiff clanger” was supposed to be “cliff hanger.” That transposition of sounds and letters is called a spoonerism, and that faux pas is what led to today's missive on word play.

A spoonerism is a verbal error in which the speaker accidentally transposes the sounds or letters of two or more words, often to humorous effect. A popular example is when the teacher admonished his student, “You hissed the mystery lecture.” (You missed the history lecture.)

Spoonerisms are named after William Archibald Spooner, an Oxford minister famous for such mix-ups as “The Lord is a shoving leopard,” instead of “The Lord is a loving shepherd.”

When you crawl into your own mind, you will likely pull out some doozies of your own. I claim no proprietary ownership of hiff clangers, but whenever I find myself in need of a good laugh, I say it out loud. It works every time as a spoonful of laughter medicine.

  Comments