Milly Sistake: Are Quirky Spoonerism a Sign of Serious Problems?

Are you prone to Spoonerism when you speak?
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The human brain is a funny thing sometimes. It can help us take humans to the moon by calculating complex trajectories. It can help us map the human genome and discover cures for diseases that had for generations killed thousands of people per year. It can create masterpieces of art, music, and theatre. And it can forget where you put your car keys 15 seconds ago.

The human brain is full of silly little quirks that even the most intelligent or sharp-witted among us cannot avoid sometimes. One of the more interesting quirks of the human brain has an equally interesting name: Spoonerisms.

What is a Spoonerism?

On 22 July 1844, a man was born in London; this man would go on to be a notable scholar and faculty member at Oxford University. This notably absent-minded man was also well known for his habit of mixing up the first syllables of words to create often quite comical mistakes in his speech.

From this man—William Archibald Spooner—comes the name for this unique speech pattern we are talking about today.

According to the Oxford dictionary, a Spoonerism is “a verbal error in which a speaker accidentally transposes the initial sound or letters of two or more words.”

Some examples of Spoonerisms include:

  • “It is kisstumary to cuss the bride” – William Spooner
  • “Runny Babbit” – Shel Silverstein (The title of his final children’s book)
  • “Hoobert Heever” – Harry von Zell (Radio announcer, referring to US president Herbert Hoover)

These might sound quite silly and not worth much more of our time than a for a quick laugh, but these Spoonerisms are actually quite useful and can illustrate some interesting facts about how our brains work and process information.

Why do we mix up words and sounds?

Person mixes up words, creates spoonerism.
Photo by Karolina Grabowska

When we are talking, normally our brain does a good job of coordinating the ideas in our mind, the words and phrases we need to express those ideas, and the muscles in our throat, mouth, and tongue we need to make the sounds. When the brain does this coordination correctly, we are able to speak and carry on a fluid conversation.

But sometimes our brains aren’t able to keep up with everything that needs to be coordinated and something slips by. This could be due to factors such as the speaker being tired, the presence of external stimuli distracting the speaker, or a number of other reasons.

There are many ways our brain can make mistakes when speaking, and Spoonerisms are just one example.

Some other examples of speech errors include:

  • Tip of the Tongue – This is a common problem that many of us have experienced. We are about to say something and just can’t seem to think of the word we are trying to say. The word may be something quite common, however, the wires in our brain have become crossed for a moment and we just can’t recall the word.
  • Malapropism – Another common example is malapropism. This happens when a speaker replaces a word in a sentence for a similar-sounding but completely different word, such as “This is unparalyzed in the state’s history.” [(unparalleled) – Gib Lewis, Texas Speaker of the House]

What do Spoonerisms tell us about the brain?

Famous, though often controversial psychologist Sigmund Freud believed that when we misspoke it was a way of our subconscious thoughts to rise to the surface, in what is often referred to as Freudian Slips. Whether you agree with this notion or not, it illustrates the fact that how we speak – and more importantly, how we misspeak – has been a topic of much interest to the psychological community for many years.

Spoonerisms are an interesting quirk of our brains, showing how internal and external stimuli can cause errors in even simple tasks such as speaking.

Are Spoonerisms a Sign of Dyslexia or Another Disorder?

Kid reads book. Is a Spoonerism a sign of dyslexia?
Photo by Daria Shevtsova

While Spoonerisms can be quite harmless, they can be a sign of more serious learning disabilities such as Dyslexia – especially in children under five years old.

Just because a child is prone to mispronouncing words or mixing up sounds, it does not mean they have dyslexia, however, if they have other warning signs along with this speech difficulty, you should speak with a professional to learn more about dyslexia and understand the treatment options.