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As a native French speaker, I am a big enthusiast of spoonerisms. I used to write a few texts full of them, mainly for my own pleasure!

But I have to be honest...the underlying meaning was bawdy most of the time (99.8%!). One can perform a few innocent, even poetic ones, but they are less obvious (and not as much expected!). Here it is about French usage of them.

Now, let's come to the point: I read quite often English literature (scholarly, classical, SF/Fantasy, newspapers, etc.), but I don't see a lot of (obvious!) spoonerisms. In French, you have some great classics (e.g. "je te laisse le choix dans la date", "il est arrivé à pieds par la chine"); mostly everyone can recognize them, and once you see them, you know you can expect some more. I guess there are such classics in English, but I don't know them...

Eventually, here are my questions :

  • Do such introducing classics exist and what are they?
  • Are spoonerisms common or marginal?
  • Are they also mainly salacious?

Thanks in advance!

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    You probably should ask here: literature.stackexchange.com – user067531 Sep 28 '18 at 8:50
  • You might get a wry smile by using common noun, english, instead of the proper noun, English - especially in conjunction with your comment about bawdy interpretations. – Lawrence Sep 28 '18 at 9:29
  • @Marvin Are these the common form of French 'contrpeteries'?. A google search of 'spoonerism' will get you lots in the usual English form. – Mitch Sep 28 '18 at 13:23
  • @Mitch the 3 first ones are also great classics. The others are less common than the two I quoted. And indeed one can find a lot of english ones through google search. But this does not tell what is the real usage of them in native english countries (though this may indeed differ from a country to another) – Marvin Oct 1 '18 at 15:20
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    @Marvin On seeing the French examples, it seems there should be nothing preventing lots of similar ones but in English, and if memory serves, when one first learns of the idea of Spoonerisms, that's all one things of doing, trying to come up with funny or dirty examples. And yet, as my answer gives, pretty much what is done in English is it follows the joke pattern given "What's the difference between ...?"as opposed to the French pattern of 'normal' sentence whose spoonerism is dirty. There's no stopping French or English fro following the other's pattern, it's just they don't. – Mitch Oct 1 '18 at 16:35
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In English, a spoonerism is primarily a mistake. That is, the original is correct and the spoonerized result is usually nonsense. It seems that the French style is to actively construct 'contrepèteries' and with the intent of creating vulgarities.

To directly answer your questions:

What's the difference between a dirty bus stop and a large-breasted crab?

One's a crusty bus station, and the other is a busty crustacean.

  • 'Are spoonerisms common or marginal?' - Not particularly common, whether vulgar or not, whether explicit joke or rhetorical pattern.

  • 'Are they also mainly salacious?' - when they are constructed on purpose, yes, they are primarily salacious, but if not they are few and more likely the original is vulgar and then spoonerized into a nonsense phrase to euphemize. e.g Shel Silverstein's

But when he says he pepped in stew

We'll tell him he should wipe his shoe

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    For UK TV viewers in the 80s, possibly the most famous lewd spoonerism where the dirty version was never supplied directly was Kenny Evertt's character Cupid Stunt (see Wiki page). – TripeHound Sep 28 '18 at 14:14
  • This was the kind of answer I was expecting! Thanks for those. – Marvin Oct 1 '18 at 7:14
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As a French speaker I was puzzled by the phrases you quoted, not recognising them as Spoonerisms, until I Googled them and found that they are phrases which can be 'Spoonerised' into something rude.

I suppose the classic Spoonerisms are those supposedly made by Dr. Spooner himself; 'You have just tasted two worms' 'The Lord is a shoving leopard' and the like (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spoonerism )

There are plenty of non-salacious ones. There is also a style of joke which asks the difference between two kinds of people, of which the answer is a (usually rude) Spoonerism.

  • The two I quoted are especially rude : most the ones I know are only bawdy, but some famous ones are basicely rude. Also, I absolutely agree there are plenty of non-salacious ones. The question is more about how often they are salacious compared to when they are not: do native-english speakers expect them to be so? – Marvin Sep 28 '18 at 8:43
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    @Marvin I would say no. Most spoonerisms (especially genuine ones, i.e., ones that are accidental and unintended) are just amusing with no hint of bawdiness. Bawdy ones may tend to become better known because that’s just how comedic effect works, but many famous ones are innocent enough as well (e.g., the Dorothy Parker one quoted in Christophe’s answer). – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 28 '18 at 9:21
  • @Janus Interesting answer! This is the kind of difference I was expecting between the two cultures... or at least two among all related ones! – Marvin Oct 1 '18 at 7:27
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I first heard of spoonerisms in a dictionary of literary terms (Woordenboek van literaire termen by Van Gorp et al, in Dutch), where they gave the following example (quoting from memory), attributed to Spooner:

You have hissed my mystery lectures, you have tasted your worm and must take the first town drain.

(I.e. you have missed my history lectures, you have wasted your term and must take the first train down. "Down" meaning out of Oxford.)

One of my favourite spoonerisms is by Dorothy Parker, although this one works better in speech than in writing:

I'd rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.

In Desperately Seeking Spoonerisms: The Decline of Word Play in Literature (October 2014) Genna Riviecco wrote that spoonerisms "seem to have (...) diminished with marked noticeability in contemporary prose" (i.e. since the 20th century). She quotes the following example from Nabokov's Lolita:

“What’s the katter with misses?” I muttered (word-control gone) into her hair.
“If you must know,” she said, “you do it the wrong way.”
“Show, wight ray.”
“All in good time,” responded the spoonerette.

The above examples are not salacious. (If you are looking for salacious wordplay, get a book of limericks.)

  • Once again, I know they do not need to be salacious (and I love the ones you quoted... even though I haven't understood all of them yet). I also know of many very good ones that do not imply anything salacious... I meant that most of the time in French (to m.o.o), they are bawdy either to make people smile, or sometimes for the sole purpose of having them understand you are introducing a series of spoonerisms! I was thus wondering if it was the same in English ! – Marvin Sep 28 '18 at 10:01

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