Bett Slapper: welcome to the world of spoonerisms

Sepp Blatter - or Bett Slapper? Photo credit:

Last week’s arrest in Zurich of seven members of FIFA (football’s world governing body) threw an intense spotlight on the subsequent re-election of FIFA’s president, Sepp Blatter.

But amid all the column inches written and all the media and internet speculation circulating about Mr Blatter, there was one wonderful moment that brought some much-needed relief. On BBC Radio Four’s Any Answers programme, someone unintentionally (but hilariously) referred to FIFA’s president as Bett Slapper, instantly bringing to my mind an image of Mr Blatter with huge hoop earrings and an off-the-shoulder leopard-print top like a barmaid from Coronation Street, or a Carry On… film.

This kind of effect where sounds get mixed up to produce a phrase with a different meaning to the one intended is called a spoonerism. This particular speech error is named after the Reverend William Archibald Spooner (1844–1930), an Anglican priest and Oxford scholar. Although there seem to be many examples of his own spoonerisms, it seems likely that most of these were made up and circulated by his students.

Famous examples include:

A toast to “our queer old dean”.

It is kisstomary to cuss the bride.

Will nobody pat my hiccup?

When our boys come home from France, we will have the hags flung out.

A well-boiled icicle.

Apocryphal or not, such accidental linguistic mix-ups make for much amusement and the term ‘spoonerism’ seems to have been established by 1921.

Other forms of spoonerisms were named kniferism and forkerism by American cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter. They refer to speech errors where syllables from the middle of a word are switched (kniferism) and where syllables from the ends of two words are switched (forkerism). Examples of kniferism as cited on wikipedia include:

  • a British television newsreader referring to the police at a crime scene removing a “hypodeemic nerdle;
  • a television announcer saying that “All the world was thrilled by the marriage of the Duck and Doochess of Windsor

While most spoonerisms are unintentional slips of the tongue (my own common spoonerism is par cark instead of car park), spoonerisms can be a source of deliberate and clever wordplay.

British comedian and comic writer Ronnie Barker excelled at this sort of linguistic nonsense. I’ll leave you with this classic Two Ronnies sketch called Dr Spooner Revisited:


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