Friday, April 13, 2007

Spoonerism; Metathesis

Today's wotd from DD is spoonerism. Ordinarily, I would be unimpressed with a word, the origin of which is someone's name, since that would seem very mean-spirited. But there we have it. Spoonerism derives from the Rev. William A. Spooner, who was known to swap the initial sounds of words (blushing crow instead of crushing blow). So, not only does this word have an uninteresting etymology, which, for what its worth, is still the sole meaning of the word, but it really only has that one usage. Drunk, he was more inclined to slurring words than demanding another "bold keer". Tongue twisters lead to interesting spoonerisms. Even as I put on my creative thinking cap, I still am having a hard time inventing any "expanded" or "extreme" usages for this word. Could it be a spoonerism to misintroduce a couple by identifying each with the other's name? A different kind of initial sound being swapped? Probably not because the reason one tends to do that is because a pair of names is learned in an order, and then the reflex is to say the names in that order regardless of where the people are standing relative to one another. It might be a stretch of a spoonerism to connect the leads backward on a switch, but probably not. Swapping alone is not the critical element. It has to be swapping of something initial of a multipart construction, whether that be a word or something else. Well, I'm not interested in trying to figure out any more potential misusages of this word. If I stumble upon one later, I'll update this post.

But knowning that I would find spoonerism dull, I thought I'd add metathesis, which I think is a fascinating word. Metathesis comes from the Greek "meta" for "to change" and "tithenai" for "to put or set", so quite literally, to change place or transposition. It applies to a physical transposition as well as a linguistic transposition, but the physical meaning has become almost exclusively reserved to chemistry, leaving the linguistic meaning to the lay folk. Thus, metathesis is the swapping of sounds when pronouncing a single word. "Psaghetti" "ephelant" or "methatesis". From the first two, you can guess that such pronounciations are usually done by children. Now, metathesis only occurs in pronounciation--in writing, the excuse is a typo. "Teh" or "adn" are not metathesis, but rather the fact that I can type faster than the computer can process my key strokes (although my spell checker may disagree for the number of times it hasn't auto-corrected "revelent"). And when I write longhand, that is still not metathesis because I haven't transposed anything as much as I've started the beginning of one word now with the ending of the next, and my brain has gotten ahead of my hand. [Ed. note: what's the word for that?] Pig Latin is deliberate metathesis. Transliteration of R/L by Asian speakers is not metathesis since there is no swapping of sounds self-contained in a word, but a swapping of sounds regardless of whether they exist in the word. So, like spoonerism, metathesis has a consistent usage with its etymology and basically one non-specialized usage. Now, does metathesis have more opportunity for expansion? Absolutely, just for using its basic meaning of transposition outside chemistry and linguistics. Children lining up for recess often undergo a hierarchical metathesis. Although applying both of those nickel words to children and recess just sounds like I'm writing some psychology dissertation. Mediators try to get the parties to engage in a mental metathesis to encourage them to understand the issues from the other side. Magic box tricks are not so much metathesis as sleight of hand.

So, I simply love this word, metathesis. It rolls so trippingly off the tongue and few people know what it means that I can yet again be opaque in my very explicit meaning. Unfortunately, I am more guilty of spoonerisms than metathesis, and would rather it be in the inverse so as never to have the word spoonerism applied to me. Still sounds mean.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Spoonerisms, in linguistic usage, are generally much more limited than linguistic metatheses. In some structure ABC XYZ, 'proper spoonerisms' follow the form XBC AYZ. Taking, as an example, "A turn of phrase", the spoonerism would be "A furn of trase", which we would hear as "A fern of trays" (or perhaps treys, if we were card players). However, Metathesis allows us to have more fun with it by swapping "A tRAY of fERNs". I particularly like this dialogue: "Madam, may I take your coat? No? Then may I tote your cake?"