Verbal tongue slips… oops, slips of the tongue!

slips of the tongue lapsus humorous slips of the tongue examples

Imagine your teacher reprimands you with the following words “You have hissed all my mystery lectures. You have tasted the whole worm”. Surely, you would find it hard not to burst laughing. What the teacher intended to say was, “You have missed all my history lectures. You have wasted the whole term”. Such accidental transposition of initial sounds, or other parts, of two or more words is called spoonerism. The term is derived from the name of Reverend William Archibald Spooner, a lecturer at Oxford, who is known for many humorous slips of the tongue. Here are more examples attributed to Reverend Spooner:

“Three cheers for our queer old dean” (dear old queen, referring to Queen Victoria)
“Is it kisstomary to cuss the bride?” (customary to kiss)
“The lord is a shoving leopard” (a loving shepherd)
“Is the bean dizzy?” (dean busy)

The act of swapping the initial sounds of words can be accidental, or it can be made intentionally, as a type of wordplay, to produce comic effect. Below are a few more examples:

“Why don’t you know your blows” (blow your nose)
“I think you should shake a tower” (take a shower)
“Have you bought a cop porn?” (popcorn)
“You have very mad banners” (bad manners)
“You’re such a shining wit” (whining s***)

Believe it or not, but every year (on July 22, the birth date of Reverend Spooner) World Spoonerism Day is celebrated!

Not all verbal slips are called spoonerisms. Sometimes, speakers mistakenly use a word in place of another similar sounding one, e.g.: “Flying saucers are just an optical conclusion” (for illusion), “It’s great to be back on terracotta” (for terra firma), “Having one wife is called monotony (for monogamy). Such swapping of words (not sounds), often resulting in nothing but ridiculous and nonsensical expressions, is called malapropism. This term is derived from Mrs. Malaprop, the character in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s play The Rivals, known for such ludicrous phrases as “the pineapple of politeness” (for pinnacle) or “as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of Nile (for alligator).

Let us have a look at one more linguistic phenomenon that we all have experienced at least once in a lifetime. Have you ever sung along to a tune without realizing you were using an incorrect phrase? If yes, then you have experienced mondegreen, i.e. mishearing something (usually a song lyric) and creating a new meaning. The term was coined by a writer Sylvia Wright who, as a child, misheard the last phrase from the following Scottish ballad:

Ye Highlands and Ye Lowlands
Oh where hae you been?
They hae slay the Earl of Murray,
And laid him on the green

Instead of “And laid him on the green”, she heard “And Lady Mondegreen”. For years, Wright believed that Lady Mondegreen was a tragic heroine that died with her lord, the Earl of Murray.

There are a lot of mondegreens from popular music. Here are some examples:

“When a man loves a walnut” (for Michael Bolton’s When a Man Loves a Woman)
“The ants are my friends” (for the answer my friends from Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind)
“Left my brains down in Africa” (for bless the rains down in Africa from Toto’s Africa)
“We are living in a Cheerio world, and I’m a Cheerio girl” (for we are living in a material world, and I am a material girl from Madonna’s Material Girl)

Written by

University of Oxford. Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.), English Language and Literature/Letters. Passionate about my work, in love with my family and dedicated to spreading love. Adventurer and thrill seeker.