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With 2014 on the other side of the sunset, I wanted to write something relevant to the changing of time, the promise of a new year, the symbolism of a new year meaning a new start.

And then I saw that there exists something called a “spoonerism” in writing, and all my previous ideas immediately went out my ear.

Robin Hood Men In Tights

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’ve often found myself talking faster than my brain can create words to send down to my mouth (that’s probably not physiologically how information actually gets transmitted, but that’s what I imagine). It’s not uncommon for me to start saying one thing and then switch what I’m saying halfway through the word, so it doesn’t come out recognizable in any way, shape, or form.

I don’t know if there’s a special name for when that happens, but here are a couple fun terms for linguistic tangles that also occur.

Spoonerism

A spoonerism happens when consonants, vowels, or syllables are switched between two words.

The term comes from the Reverend William Archibald Spooner, who was apparently notorious for committing this verbal sin, although there aren’t many spoonerisms that can be definitively attributed to him.

In pop culture, the princess in Jim Henson’s Muppet retelling of the Frog Prince speaks in spoonerisms constantly as part of her enchantment, and the Sheriff of Rottingham from Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men In Tights uses these when he gets frustrated (“Struckey has loxed again!” instead of “Loxley has struck again!”).

While spoonerisms are often unintentional slips of the tongue, sometimes they are deliberately used as a form of wordplay.

Mondegreen

The word “mondegreen” comes from an essay by Sylvia Wright, in which she retells the story of her mother reading poems out loud to her from Percy’s Reliques, and she mishears “laid him on the green” as “Lady Mondegreen”.

Consequently, a mondegreen is a line that is misheard from poetry or song, or just a terrible sound system.

Song lyric examples include Jimi Hendrix’s lyric from “Kiss the Sky” being misheard as “kiss this guy”. There’s even a whole online database dedicated to documenting lyrical mondegreens.

Malapropism

A malapropism is the act of swapping out one word for a similar-sounding but completely different word.

Malapropisms have their origin in the Richard Brinsley Sheridan play The Rivals, which has a character named Mrs. Malaprop who peppers them liberally throughout her speech, replacing “apprehend” with “reprehend”, “obliterate” with “illiterate”, and “epithets” with “epitaphs”. The constable Dogberry from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing also does this frequently, so the term “dogberryism” may be used in place of malapropism.

In almost all of these examples, hilarity is the end result. If you’re looking to branch out in writing comedy, introducing some of these turns of phrase and trips of the tongue might be a good way to get some humor into your writing if you’ve hit a wall or are looking to play more with the English language.

So what do you think? Which of these terms is your favorite?

PRACTICE

Write a New Year’s Eve scene using as many examples of the above dialogue slips as possible. After fifteen minutes, post your practice in the comments and leave notes for your fellow writers.

Happy New Year!

Liz Bureman
Liz Bureman
Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.
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