Words From People’s Names – Spoonerism

Many of our words come from people’s names, usually because they invented the item. You have probably heard that the “sandwich” was invented by the Earl of Sandwich who did not want to leave the gambling table to eat so he asked for some meat between two slices of bread. Braille, the method of printing for the blind, comes from Louis Braille, a blind man who created the system. Joel R. Poinsett served as a U.S. minister to Mexico and brought back a certain plant (easy to guess its name, yes?). The Jacuzzi brothers invented the first self-contained whirlpool bath. By the way, I learned about these names from one of my literacy student books – I think I learn more from these books than my students!

But here is a word I recently read that I could not figure out – Spoonerism. When I looked it up, I realized that something I had been doing for years had a name!

Spoonerism means the transposition of word beginnings. Most of my life I have accidentally called two pieces of silverware a “spork and foon” instead of fork and spoon. I don’t know why my mouth insists on saying this spoonerism, but it does, so I have learned to run them past my brain, first, to double check the words’ pronunciations before I dare to say them out loud. It helps a little bit that “spork” has become a real word, indicating that strange-looking plastic utensil that is a combination of a fork and a spoon. No such future for “foon,” apparently.

The name comes from an English clergyman named W. A. Spooner who was well known for such slips.

Do any of you transpose the beginning of words?

4 thoughts on “Words From People’s Names – Spoonerism”

  1. Great post, Barbara! I had forgotten about spoonerisms even though I do come out with them occasionally myself – more often as I get older. This reminded me of another term for a word or phrase that comes from a slip-up: malapropism. I think little kids do this a lot without realizing it, often with hilarious results. Your next column perhaps? Finally, I think those words from people’s names are called eponyms if I am not mistaken. This is sometimes a category on Jeopardy.

    • Malapropisms sounds like a great column idea, Laura – thanks for the suggestion!
      I do see eponymous fairly often – the adjective version. I’m sure there are a lot of other eponyms that I did not include.
      FYI – my Adult Literacy League colleague, Claudia, is working a new project for non-English speakers regarding euphemisms. The expressions we use is SO unhelpful to trying to learn American English! If you have any examples, please send them to me!

      • Thanks for letting me know, Barbara. I will certainly pass on any that I think of. Have a great day!

  2. This is a very interesting discussion. I am always fascinated by clich├ęs. They have to originate somewhere and then resonate enough with people to become commonly used. For example: “fit as a fiddle”. According to the internet, “the phrase fit as a fiddle dates back to the 1600s in British English, but had a slightly different meaning then. The violin was picked out as the exemplar because of the alliteration of fit and fiddle, and because the violin is a beautifully shaped instrument producing a very particular sound. ” Some sights also went on to say that the instrument requires special care, maintenance and tuning to keep it in good shape. Whether we like it or not, the same goes for us!


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