Tips of the Slung

 To the language gourmet, nothing is as delectable as a mistake. A correct spelling, punctuation mark, word choice, or pronunciation doesn’t tempt the palate; it merely indicates that the author has successfully followed convention. To put it another way: Happy utterances are all alike; each unhappy utterance is unhappy in its own way. You could write a book about the latter. Call it something like “Eats Shoots and Leaves,” and  you might have a best seller.

There is one kind of mistake that’s so delicious, even its perpetrator is often amused. That’s the “slip of the tongue,” immediately recognized by the speaker and quickly corrected, often with a smile.

The most famous tips of the slung are those attributed to the Rev. W.A. Spooner, late (1844-1930) of Oxford University, who is said to have said something like: “You have hissed the mystery lectures; you have tasted the whole worm.” He also supposedly talked about “fighting a liar,” “a half-warmed fish,” “a blushing crow,” “cattle ships and bruisers.” Such was his rumored proficiency at such transpositions that they have acquired the name “spoonerisms.”

One of the perks of being a linguist is that you have a good excuse for studying errors like those: They tell you so much about the nature of language. A pioneer in this field was Victoria A. Fromkin of the University of California at Los Angeles. With help from friends and colleagues, over the course of a few years she collected more than 600 slips of the tongue. She wrote about them in a famous article, “The Non-Anomalous Nature of Anomalous Utterances,” published in 1971 in Language, journal of the Linguistic Society of America.

Her article shows that “despite the semicontinuous nature of the speech signal, there are discrete units at some level of performance which can be substituted, omitted, transposed, or added.” From the particulars of slips of the tongue she deduces eight characteristics of spoken language, including:

“(a) that features, segments, syllables constitute units in the production of a speech utterance;

“(b) that segments are ordered within a syllable, and that only segments similarly ordered are involved in the same error.”

No need to elaborate on her findings here, since she expresses them so clearly and accessibly in her article. No, I’ll just take this as an excuse to point out some of the gems in her collection.

the nipper is zarrow (the zipper is narrow)

with this wing I do red (ring wed)

in the fast pew weeks (past few weeks)

odd hack (ad hoc)

Wing’s babliography (Wang’s bibliography)

fash and tickle (fish and tackle)

plit spee soup (split pea soup)

tap stobs (tab stops)

arg of the fuwt (art of the fugue)

at the bottom of the skay pail (pay scale)

coat thrutting (throat cutting)

cassy put (pussy cat)

a hunk of jeep (heap of junk)

piss and stretch (stress and pitch)

serp is suved (soup is served)

glear plue sky (clear blue sky)

pig and vat (big and fat)

tebestrian (pedestrian)

carpsichord (harpsichord)

ephelant (elephant)

canpakes (pancakes)

butterpillar and catterfly (butterfly and caterpillar)

minx in spoonlight (sphinx in moonlight)

parkles peep (peoples park)

flay the pictor (play the victor)

a meeting arathon (an eating marathon)

nerve of a vergeous breakdown (verge of a nervous breakdown)


How about you? Have you lured any hately? Net me low!

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