The Jack Report – Wonderful Word History

Albert Jack
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Weekend reading

A spoonerism is an often inadvertent mixing-up of letters or even whole words in a sentence. Technically a form of metathesis – which means the same although ‘spoonerism’ is a much better word – it can result in someone communicating completely the wrong message, to hilarious effect.

For example, you might reveal that you are ‘bearing a welt’ instead of ‘wearing a belt,’ and we’ve all fallen foul of the tongue-twister ‘I’m not a Pheasant Plucker.’ Meanwhile, it’s hard to feel sorry for the politician who supposedly wanted to complain to the press about a ‘pack of lies’ but ended up ranting about a ‘lack of pies.’

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Although surely not the first to confuse his words in this way, the Reverend W. A. Spooner (1844–1930), Warden of New College, Oxford, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, is certainly the most famous.

Some of his best verbal mix-ups included ‘You have been caught fighting a liar in the quad’ and ‘We all know what it is to have a half-warmed fish inside us.’ Spooner, who hated being famous for his ‘spoonerisms,’ is also supposed to have berated a bewildered scholar for ‘hissing my mystery lectures,’ although my personal favourite is his toast at a formal dinner to the ‘queer old dean.’

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Money for Old Rope is only $2.99 during August

The BBC has broadcast more than its fair share of Spooner-related bloopers over the years, including repeated references to the ‘British Broadcorping Castration’ and Barry Cryer’s sly description of a prominent TV personality as a ‘shining wit’ on Radio Four’s Sorry, I Haven’t a Clue.

But by far the most famous example came at 7.59 a.m. on 6 December 2010, when veteran broadcaster James Naughtie promised an interview on Radio Four’s Today programme with the much-maligned Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, a name he unfortunately managed to turn into a spoonerism. What exactly is a ‘Hulture Secretary’ anyway, Jim?

Although similar to a spoonerism, a malapropism is generally more easily understood and glossed over. It is when a word is substituted for a similar-sounding word with a totally different meaning.

Dear old George W. Bush – who, incredibly, was not the subject of a piece I once wrote entitled ‘The President’s Brain is Missing’ – provided journalists with a wealth of malapropisms throughout his tenure at the White House. Some of my favourites include: ‘The law I will sign today directs new funds to the task of collecting intelligence of weapons of mass production’; ‘They misunderestimated me’; ‘It will take time to restore chaos and order’; and ‘We cannot let terrorists and rogue nations hold this nation hostile.’

And George Dubya is not alone. Boxer Frank Bruno once threatened (or perhaps confused) Mike Tyson by declaring, ‘When I have finished with him he will have channel vision,’ while TV presenter Cilla Black once asked somebody if they planned to ‘abseil across the English Channel.’ In 1985, The Times reported that a miners’ union leader had denounced his company’s management as ‘totally incontinent,’ and then there’s the lady who famously complained she was not at all ‘enamelled with’ her new kitchen. (Perhaps all it had needed was a fresh coat of emotion.)

All of these wonderful mistakes can be traced to the Mrs Malaprop, a character in Sheridan’s comedy The Rivals (1775). Her linguistic errors include ‘She’s as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile’ and ‘Promise to forget this fellow – to illiterate him, I say, quite from your memory.’ In naming his character, Sheridan borrowed from the French mal  Epropos, ‘not the purpose’ or ‘not appropriate.’

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Before the appearance of Mrs Malaprop, malapropisms were called dogberryisms, after the equally inarticulate character Dogberry in Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing (1598). Dogberry’s many gaffes include: ‘Our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended two aspicious persons.’ (See also colemanballs.)

Sports presenter David Coleman became so well known for his mispronunciations (see also malapropism, spoonerism) and senseless commentary that Private Eye magazine coined the term Colemanballs to denote any linguistic ‘balls-up’ in the style of the British television presenter.

Colemanballs are an ill-defined beast but they generally involve an inadvertent double-entendre or nonsensical statement broadcast on TV or radio. Coleman wasn’t the only perpetrator of Colemanballs, but that doesn’t stop most of them being attributed to him. Famous examples of his include: ‘He’s just opened his legs wide and showed us his class’ (a running commentary on the great Cuban athlete Alberto Juantorena); ‘Linford Christie has a habit of pulling it out when it matters most’; ‘The Dutch manager told them in the dressing gown at half time’; and the splendid ‘For those of you watching in black and white, Everton are in the blue shirts.’ Perhaps the most memorable Colemanballs was actually delivered by cricket commentator Brian Johnston: ‘The batsman’s Holding, the bowler’s Willey.’

But Colemanballs aren’t restricted to the world of sports commentary: Prime Minister John Major notoriously ballsed up what was meant to be a stern warning when he declared: ‘When your back’s against the wall, you have to turn round and fight.’

Extract from Money for Old Rope by Albert Jack

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