Born on this day in 1844, William Spooner was for many years Dean and Warden of New College, Oxford. He became so famous for transposing the initial sounds of words that we now refer to such slips of the tongue as “Spoonerisms.” Errors attributed to him include an offer of assistance to a foot-weary acquaintance (“May I sew you to a sheet?”); a reproach of a lackadaisical student (“You have tasted a whole worm!”); a description of his favorite means of transportation (“a well-boiled icicle”); directions from Oxford to London (“Leave by the town drain”); and reassuring words about Providence (“Our Lord is a shoving leopard”).
Though some gems associated with Spooner are doubtless apocryphal, he does seem to have been almost congenitally disposed to mixing things up. He once spilled salt on a tablecloth and immediately poured claret over it. Giving guests a tour of his college, he warned them that a staircase they were about to descend was badly lit, then switched off the weak lighting, and led them down into total darkness. Also, he suffered from albinism, so his eyesight was poor. Reading lectures was a challenge, and he naturally mangled the text from time to time. It was reportedly during a formal address to farmers that he called them “noble tons of soil,” and it was during a speech before Queen Victoria that he said, “Which of us has not felt in his heart a half-warmed fish.”
When he died in 1930, Spooner was remembered not only for his eccentricities but also for his long and fruitful marriage (depending which account you read, he and his wife produced five or seven children), for his able administration of New College, and for his devotion to his students. Among the latter, Leonard Woolley (“Woolly of Ur”) recalled how, when he was young and clueless, Spooner convinced him to become an archeologist. Spooner had long been aware of his reputation, and his friends sometimes detected a subversive wit in his odd expressions, as in his remark to a colleague: “Your book fills a much needed gap.”
So hail, Dr. Spooner! It’s your Firthday on Basebook! (At right, is Leslie Ward’s 1898 caricature of Spooner for Vanity Fair.)