Obscene spoonerism and stupid verbing discussion on Radio 4

« previous post | next post »

Thanks to Sean H, Mike Fourman, Ian Leslie, Eddie, Electric Dragon, Lizzie, Jayarava, KGR, Will Watts, Alex, DW, Sean Case, (and probably many others still typing their comments) who commented on my earlier version of this post, for confirming that around 8 a.m. this morning James Naughtie of the BBC Radio 4 news magazine program "Today" suffered (or very nearly suffered) a catastrophic obscene spoonerism followed by an obliterative ill-muffled giggling fit. What a pity a coughing fit didn't halt the dumb discussion of nouns and verbs elsewhere in the program.

Naughtie (perfect name, but actually it's Scottish, and pronounced [noxti]) was attempting to say "Jeremy Hunt, the Culture Secretary", and what very nearly came out was "Jeremy Cunt, the Hulture Secretary". He stopped just after "Cunt" and said "Hunt", so we didn't get to hear "Hulture Secretary", though that's where he was headed. He stammered a bit, and tried to get on with the one minute he had to read before the news started at 8:01, but he collapsed into a giggle fit as he tried to trailer various serious news items like the Sharm El Sheikh shark attack (he lied to the listeners and said he was suffering a coughing fit).

Amazingly, as a couple of people rapidly pointed out to me, someone caught it and got 12 seconds of it up on YouTube within minutes: students of speech errors can hear it at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F1G6osCnsbA (and was also on http://audioboo.fm/ for a few minutes, but it has been removed now). In the brave new fast-moving world of always-on Internet everywhere, your audio wardrobe malfunctions are caught digitally in millions of locations and can be preserved forever on the web. Already the BBC, never shy about doing stories about itself, has a news story about the incident, Naughtie has tweeted about it, and within an hour or so there was a Daily Telegraph news story about it. The main qualification for a journalist these days must be multiple monitors and extremely fast typing. I have done about thirty revisions of this piece since I started it over my breakfast oatmeal. [Weather here in Scotland: roughly freezing point, with more heavy snowfall. The trip Barbara and I were planning to make to Surrey yesterday had to be called off.]

Naughtie's near-spoonerism was of course prompted by the near-adjacency of two syllables with the same vowel, hunt and cult-. It's a familiar phenomenon for psycholinguists. It was unquestionably the linguistic highlight of this morning's show, anyway. Elsewhere in the program there was an utterly fatuous discussion about language, or rather the usual surrogate for it, namely what words we have. The descriptive paragraph on the Today program website said:

Is the English language being mutilated by the recent trend to turn nouns into verbs ? Journalist Anthony Gardner and Elaine Higgleton, editorial director of Harper Collins English Dictionaries, discuss developments in modern language.

My God, it was bad. A boring journalist telling us it's a scandal that some people talk about flipcharting, answered by a boring lexicographer telling us weakly that language change goes on all the time. No evidence, just assertions about "scale and speed" — i.e., there being allegedly a lot more of it today than there used to be — and of course casual unsupported claims that it's due to the influence of America and the Internet. Protestations of horror from Gardner versus feeble pleas for tolerance from Higgleton (who babbled about codeswitching, as if that had something to do with the topic). It was truly pathetic. Gardner's article about how we must battle against showcasing and flipcharting is published this month in Intelligent Life, a copeless hulture and lifestyle magazine published for unknown reasons by the people who run The Economist. Unintelligent life is more like it as far as Gardner's piece is concerned. He suggested that we should ridicule people who use the words in question (ridicule started, of course, as a noun derived from Latin ridiculum, "jest"). You can listen to the whole stupid conversation here, but that is not a recommendation from Language Log, it's a warning.


  1. maidhc said,

    December 6, 2010 @ 5:15 am

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but hasn't "chart" been a verb for ages? I learned about "uncharted seas" in my childhood. So why should there be a question about "flipchart"?

    I don't even know what "flipchart" means, but presumably it's some kind of chart that gets flipped. I'm willing to let it go at that, noun or verb.

    On the other hand, if I could get some lucrative gig on the BBC railing against "10 items or less" and the like, there would be some incentive to bolster my retirement funds by complaining about split infinitives and using a preposition to end a sentence with.

    You have to know someone, I suspect. Probably an old school tie thing.

  2. h. s. gudnason said,

    December 6, 2010 @ 6:11 am


  3. Kapitano said,

    December 6, 2010 @ 6:19 am

    Just a tangential thought about spoonerisms: Some swap initial sounds to make existing words (eg, queer dean, noble tons of soil), and some don't (eg, chish and fips, couse of hommons).

    But is there a tendency towards the former? Is there some evidence that the brain, even when it gets phonologically confused, tries not to get lexically confused?

    Certainly almost all spoonerisms are morphologically valid. "Strange Quark" would get spoonerised to "Kwainge Strark", not "Kwrainge Stark" because /kwr/ isn't a valid concatenation in English.

  4. Sean Case said,

    December 6, 2010 @ 6:30 am

    A flipchart is a sort of loose-leaf easel arrangement, where you can have one of a sequence of charts on display, and then flip it over the top to rest behind the easel, revealing the next chart.

    Like the "slide carousel" and "having some faint idea of what you're talking about," it has been made obsolete by PowerPoint.

  5. Neil said,

    December 6, 2010 @ 6:45 am

    I've noticed that I have a slight tendency to the odd Spoonerism, normally when a bit tired. [NB I also have a bit of a stutter/stammer – possible link?] But I have to wonder how apocryphal the classics like 'queer dean' etc are – mine are much less amusing. 'Toin coss' rather than 'coin toss', for example.

    I also suggest from my experience that I have no tendency towards ones that make existing words – in my head I'm saying the right words, they're just not coming out properly.

    Thanks to my mother repeatedly Spooner-ing the name of a region of France while on a holiday there (and it now being a standing family joke), I now have to think twice to check that it's not called the Centrif Massal!

  6. pj said,

    December 6, 2010 @ 6:51 am

    Ha – I turned on and caught Naughtie struggling for speech but missed the cause.

    I switched off the ridiculous discussion about verbing after this:
    '…there's a difference between people coining imaginatively – as, say, Shakespeare did the whole time – and enriching the language, and people who are constantly trying to reduce it…'

    Aaaaaaargh, what a moron. And 'coining', huh? I guess that's one of the imaginative, enriching ones, then…

  7. Tim Silverman said,

    December 6, 2010 @ 6:54 am

    @Sean Case: flipcharts aren't obselete, because you can write on them as you go along, which makes them useful for meetings where several people are putting forward ideas (as opposed to one person giving a presentation). In fact, my guesses about the meaning of the verb "to flipchart" are along these lines—either writing someone's suggestion on a flipchart, or holding a brainstorming meeting to get ideas onto a flipchart which can be sorted through and written up later.

  8. Pflaumbaum said,

    December 6, 2010 @ 7:15 am

    I remember Pinker estimating that a fifth of English verbs derive from nouns, though I don't know what study he was referring to.

  9. Steve F said,

    December 6, 2010 @ 8:40 am

    @Neil I remember reading once (I can't remember where, possibly on Language Log) that all the well-known spoonerisms (queer old dean, tasted two whole worms, leave by the next town drain etc) were apocryphal, and that though the historical Dr Spooner did have a tendency to produce them (like all of us, as James Naughtie has shown) undergraduates were making them up and attributing them to the good doctor even in his own life time. One definitely apocryphal one: He is a man who was once described as the perfect example of a 'shining wit' – and that was by no less a person than the late Dr.Spooner…

  10. Scott Underwood said,

    December 6, 2010 @ 9:18 am

    Ricky Gervais had some fun as a presenter at the 2010 Emmys, where he gave an award for outstanding directing to the amusingly named Bucky Gunts (the relevant section starts about 3:20).

  11. Mr Fnortner said,

    December 6, 2010 @ 9:21 am

    I relish verbing nouns since they fill a need, and the imaginative and useful ones make valuable additions to the language. I still have trouble with one or two though. First is to dialog. Its corporate-speak character is nauseating to me. The other is common in American churches, to fellowship. This means to get together and enjoy one another's company at a church function, not necessarily at a church service. To me, it is as unpleasant as fingernails on a chalk board.

  12. Chris said,

    December 6, 2010 @ 10:26 am

    Here's a fictional obscene spoonerism from Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal (a webcomic).

  13. Pflaumbaum said,

    December 6, 2010 @ 11:32 am

    @ Mr Fortner –

    Yes I think a lot of the time when people think verbing is annoying, what they're really irritated by is corporate-speak. I guess 'to flipchart' fits into that category.

  14. cnnmj said,

    December 6, 2010 @ 12:21 pm

    Do I recall correctly _Berkshire hunt_ as rhyming slang for ‘(stupid) c*nt’? And also further truncated to give us _berk_?

  15. John said,

    December 6, 2010 @ 12:43 pm

    Perhaps Naughty was just distracted by the linguistics of Cockney back-slang.

    A 'Berk' in UK slang, comes from 'Berkeley Hunt', which rhymes with …

  16. Alex said,

    December 6, 2010 @ 1:03 pm

    I was listening to the BBC World Service a few weeks ago. They did a story on motorcycles replacing donkeys in the Gaza Strip. The announcer, in his very deadpan RP, said "So, you could say the bottom fell out of the ass market?"

    As I understand it, "ass" is less offensive than "arse" in British English, but I was still shocked that an announcer would deliberately say that on the radio. It may have been 3 am in England, but the rest of the world was still awake. Just more proof that the British are less prudish than Americans imagine (and less so than Americans, in many ways).

    [Ass doesn't really occur at all with the meaning "rump or buttocks" in British, except as a borrowing. And with the meaning "donkey", it is pronounced differently — the vowel is much shorter. There is a little-noted developing length contrast in that vowel: for me (originally a British speaker, though now well acquainted with American) the word mad has a long vowel, and is not anywhere near being a rhyme for the first syllable of Madison; and ass "donkey" has a short vowel and doesn't sound anything like an American saying ass "buttocks". —GKP]

  17. Xmun said,

    December 6, 2010 @ 1:16 pm

    C. M. Bowra's memories of Warden Spooner — too long to quote here — are well worth reading, if you can find a copy of his _Memories 1898–1939_ (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966). See especially pages 101–103.

  18. Robert Coren said,

    December 6, 2010 @ 2:48 pm

    I would think that an announcer who was having fluency difficulties would not be eager to report on a "Sharm El Sheikh shark attack".

    I'm disappointed to learn that the "queer old dean" quote is apocryphal, but that will not stop me from using it in my annual toast to the birthday of my friend Dean.

  19. Bob Violence said,

    December 7, 2010 @ 1:24 am

    As I understand it, "ass" is less offensive than "arse" in British English, but I was still shocked that an announcer would deliberately say that on the radio. It may have been 3 am in England, but the rest of the world was still awake. Just more proof that the British are less prudish than Americans imagine (and less so than Americans, in many ways).

    I think you could get away with that at any hour of the day on UK radio. Here's a research report the regulators released earlier this year finding that pretty much nobody is offended by "arse", even pre-9 PM.

    Go dig up some Blue Jam episodes to see what you could do on radio at midnight (though granted, Blue Jam was domestic radio would certainly never ever cut the mustard for the World Service).

  20. stripey_cat said,

    December 7, 2010 @ 8:37 am

    Ass for donkey is particularly associated with religious (ie Christmas) imagery here. He was probably aiming for a seasonal reference.

    Ass v. arse have very different vowels (even in non-rhotic dialects); ass is the same as in hat, arse as in father, as well as the length difference.

  21. Xmun said,

    December 7, 2010 @ 11:00 am

    But some Englishmen — e.g., P. G. Wodehouse, who used the word on the radio once when I was listening — pronounce "ass" with the same vowel as "father".

  22. Chandra said,

    December 7, 2010 @ 1:00 pm

    Um… why were my and Nathan Myers' posts deleted? We were having a discussion about an obscene spoonerism in a post about obscene spoonerisms – how is that off-topic?

  23. John Cowan said,

    December 7, 2010 @ 1:54 pm

    GKP: The length distinction in /æ/ in BrE corresponds very well to the /æ/ vs. /eə/ distinction in certain accents of AmE, notably New York City's. The Wikipedia article on short a explains how this works.

  24. Pflaumbaum said,

    December 7, 2010 @ 2:16 pm

    Ass in the anatomical sense still has the feel of a euphemism in BrE. It's a similar level of rudeness to butt – i.e. not very rude at all. Both are Americanisms (though not in the pompous ass sense, or obviously the zoological one).

    Arse is far ruder.

  25. Ken Brown said,

    December 8, 2010 @ 1:13 pm

    Xmun said "But some Englishmen – e.g., P. G. Wodehouse, who used the word on the radio once when I was listening – pronounce "ass" with the same vowel as "father"."

    That is him saying "arse"! That's how the non-rhotic majority of Brits would pronounce it. That's what we mean when we write "arse".

    The two words "ass" and "arse" are just different ways of saying and spelling the same word. For some reason the USA has adopted a non-rhotic pronounciation and spelling. The difference betweein British and US English here is the ordinary difference between the "long" A and "short A" in words like "class" and "bath". Most people from the south of England would say [klɑːs] for "class", using the same vowel as in "father", most northerners and Americans would say [klæs].

    Neither way of saying it is very offensive to most people in Britain.

  26. Xmun said,

    December 8, 2010 @ 1:53 pm

    No, Wodehouse was using the word "ass" in the sense of "fool". He said: "I made a complete ass of myself — and paid for it" (referring to those innocuous broadcasts that got him into so much trouble later). That's how the word was — maybe still is — pronounced by some speakers.

  27. George said,

    December 9, 2010 @ 4:22 pm

    @Xmun. I'm Irish and as rhotic as they come and I can confirm that I have, on occasion, made a complete arse of myself.

  28. dirk alan said,

    December 9, 2010 @ 8:38 pm

    i propose a language log break away – spin off where comments are never closed. naughty words are still words. adults can handle it. let the sun shine where the sun dont shine. cheers.

  29. chris said,

    December 10, 2010 @ 5:25 pm

    Ass doesn't really occur at all with the meaning "rump or buttocks" in British, except as a borrowing.

    Well, it can't be all *that* rare — the pun doesn't work unless the listener is aware of the double meaning of "ass".

  30. Rebecca said,

    December 17, 2010 @ 7:28 am

    Being well-acquainted with Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream I actually saw a different, and much more innocuous, pun in "the bottom fell out of the ass market".

  31. chris said,

    December 17, 2010 @ 3:45 pm

    @Rebecca: Is it possible that Shakespeare had the same pun in mind when he made an ass out of Bottom, and that the variant spelling/pronunciation "arse" arose later?

  32. Gwan said,

    December 19, 2010 @ 7:18 am

    Chris – Chaucer famously uses 'ers' in the Miller's Tale, and according to Merriam-Webster the version with the 'r' did indeed come first. Unfortunately it doesn't give any information about when the 'ass' variant arose (the OED might be handy on this, but I don't have access to it at home). I *imagine* that ass did not yet mean arse in Shakespeare's day, but I don't have any evidence for that.

  33. Gwan said,

    December 19, 2010 @ 7:24 am

    Further to that, I found an article preview on Project Muse http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/texas_studies_in_literature_and_language/summary/v049/49.4stockton.html which discusses just this issue. There is some scholarly debate which essentially boils down to "ass meaning arse is not attested before 1860, according to the OED, however, Shakespeare could still have been punning on the aural similarity between arse and ass".

  34. John Cowan said,

    January 5, 2011 @ 9:34 pm

    Xmun, Gwan: The phenomenon that gives American ass for arse is called "early loss of /r/", because it long predates the general 19th-century loss of /r/ in non-rhotic dialects. In mostly affects words where a sibilant follows. One very early change is bærs > bass, the fish; others have created doublets in AmE, notably passel < parcel, bust < burst, cuss < curse, gal < girl, and palsy ultimately < paralysis. Other forms like hoss < horse, skasely < scarcely, dasn't < durstn't < darest not, and podner < partner (with intervocalic flapping) have mostly been lost.

RSS feed for comments on this post