I'm wondering if there's a word to describe a phrase that swaps the first part of several words in a sentence, like 'leave no stone unturned' switching to 'no turn unstoned'.

I know a spoonerism is to switch the first letter of several words ('dats and cogs'), but is it still a spoonerism if you're switching more than one letter?

  • 30
    Properly, it's "No tern unstoned'!!
    – Hot Licks
    May 1, 2022 at 22:27
  • 8
    True story: A branch of my extended family have the last name "Stern". At one point, so the story goes, somebody gifted all of them with tuning forks, so as to "leave no Stern untuned". (Many of them are actually musicians, so it was appropriate in that sense as well.) May 2, 2022 at 13:45
  • 10
    "No stone left unturned." When throwing rocks at seabirds, "No tern left unstoned." When driving while intoxicated, "No left turn unstoned." and as Darrel Hoffman notes, there are others.
    – Wastrel
    May 2, 2022 at 13:56
  • 13
    I thank you all from the heart of my bottom May 2, 2022 at 21:49
  • 5
    When painting monkeys' backsides at the zoo I leave no stern untoned. May 3, 2022 at 6:00

5 Answers 5


This is a spoonerism:

a transposition of usually initial sounds of two or more words (as in tons of soil for sons of toil)

You will note that, in the transformation of “no stone unturned” to “no turn unstoned,” only one syllable of “unturned” is swapped, and not the entire word, to produce a different, inappropriate word.

A more formal term from linquistics is metathesis:

transposition of two phonemes in a word (as in the development of crud from curd or the pronunciation \ˈpər-tē\ for pretty)

Although that particular definition says “in a word,” transposition of phonemes within phrases is also metathesis. For example, here is Encyclopedia Brittanica using the word metathesis for the Spanish el lagarto becoming the English word alligator, and the National Association of Science Writers using it to describe a napron becoming an apron.

These are not synonyms. A spoonerism is almost always done intentionally, for humor, and the sounds being exchanged are usually further apart. This gives us a play on words, such as a character who does this constantly, saying, “the queer old Dean,” and the audience figuring out that it was really the dear old Queen. More recently, the American comedy troupe “The Capitol Steps” had a routine like this called “Lirty Dies.”

Metathesis is usually a slip of the tongue that switches two sounds that are right next to each other. resulting in a new word.

More general terms, not used exclusively for phonemes, include transposition, rearrangement and permutation.


User Justin found two books that specifically refer to “no turn unstoned” or “no tern unstoned” as a spoonerism.

  • 16
    this is not a Spoonerism. The initial sounds of the words are not interchanged, rather the entire words are
    – Tristan
    May 2, 2022 at 9:18
  • 4
    You need to add a reference licensing 'leave no stone unturned' switching to 'leave no turn unstoned' being classed as a spoonerism. Spoonerisms in general have been dealt with on ELU (so 'it’s still helpful to have it as an answer with a reference' is a claim that duplication is fine), and OP mentions the possibility that the term is broad enough to apply here. May 2, 2022 at 11:15
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    @Tristan The entire word “unturned” is not exchanged, only the syllable “turn” within it. That makes it a spoonerism.
    – Davislor
    May 2, 2022 at 23:13
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    @Davislor ah true, it is the morpheme rather than the whole world. I'd only ever heard spoonerism used for the exchange of initial consonants (or consonant clusters), but it seems like there is a broader sense for exchanging morphemes
    – Tristan
    May 3, 2022 at 8:37
  • 3
    Michael Erard, Um...: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean (2007) writes, "A spoonerism can also involve the reversal of two words, as in 'Courage to blow the bears of life,' or, when saying good-bye to someone, 'Must you stay, can't you go?'" William Spooner supposedly addressed the latter expression to some students who had come to tea, as they were preparing to depart.
    – Sven Yargs
    May 3, 2022 at 18:52

This is an anti-proverb [quotes from Wikipedia], or perverb:

the transformation of a standard proverb for humorous effect.


an allusive distortion, parody, misapplication, or unexpected contextualization of a recognized proverb, usually for comic or satiric effect.

Specifically, this seems to be formally classified as a "Permutation":

While keeping the syntactic structure, the words are jumbled: A waist is a terrible thing to mind.

  • 9
    “A house with many crooks and nannies.” May 2, 2022 at 10:09
  • 1
    This would be correct if the OP had posted the common "No tern unstoned" but as it stands, it's a stretch to see how this would be a pun or other humor. May 2, 2022 at 12:37
  • 4
    @CarlWitthoft It appears to have been used like "A dramatic critic is a man who leaves no turn unstoned.", from quoteinvestigator.com/2017/12/02/unstoned among other instances. "No tern unstoned" has also been used for humorous effect, as you point out.
    – cigien
    May 2, 2022 at 13:05

It’s a malapropism :

the usually unintentionally humorous misuse or distortion of a word or phrase especially : the use of a word sounding somewhat like the one intended but ludicrously wrong in the context

  • 10
    It's not a malapropism if used in the correct context. "They searched, leaving no turn unstoned" is a malapropism. "They buttressed the curves in the road, leaving no turn unstoned" is not.
    – fectin
    May 2, 2022 at 18:25
  • 1
    @fectin the op does not specify that the context is road construction, or any similarly contrived context. In almost all cases I can think of, “leaving no turn unstoned” is a malapropism.
    – Dave
    May 2, 2022 at 21:09
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    every word or phrase is a malapropism in almost all otherwise valid sentence. He doesn’t provide any context, and “malapropism” only applies in context.
    – fectin
    May 2, 2022 at 21:13
  • Close, I think, but a malapropism of OP's sentence might be more "no scones unturned" when there aren't any scones at all.
    – Michael W.
    May 2, 2022 at 21:18
  • 1
    It's probabaly a malapropism, if we don't know the context. But "malapropism" is broader, and as others have pointed out this isn't necessarily one. Of course, we could call it even broader things like "a phrase" or "an utterance" or even "a thing" -- all true, but too broad to be good labels (except, again, in special contexts).
    – TextGeek
    May 3, 2022 at 20:34

If done intentionally as a pun, this would be called a transpositional pun. For example, in the context of paving a switchback trail with stones, someone might say "Leave no turn unstoned!" (sorry)

The Wikipedia page lists several more examples:

Dieting: A waist is a terrible thing to mind.
Olympic officials: The souls that time men's tries.
Hangovers: The wrath of grapes.
The oboe: An ill wind nobody blows good.
Feudalism: It's your count that votes!
Soldiers of fortune: Give chance a piece
Vigilantism: the soul of the Dark Knight
Trophies: the memory of persistence


Although not a standard term Rickism seems quite fitting:

When a person says a Rickism, he/she uses a figure of speech or an expression, where the essential point and meaning has been understood by the person using it, but the actual expression is said wrong because he/she never bothered to learn the actual expression- only when to use it — Urban Dictionary

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