One of my obsessions: wordplay

Houses on Rowayton waterfront, 2013

I love messing with language. I subscribe to “A Word a Day” found at http://Wordsmith.org that posts a new word every weekday and has a weekend compilation of letters, puns, anagrams and limericks based on the week’s words (there are other links worth checking out – the Instant Anagram Server at  http://Anagram Server  is especially useful). The author of the website, Anu Garg, is an outspoken critic of Trump, as are most of his readers.

When I was a kid, I looked forward to every issue of Collier’s magazine, which had a kid’s page that included aphorisms and stories by “Colonel Stoopnagle.” He was a master of Spoonerisms, expressions in which phonemes are exchanged, named after a professor Spooner who purportedly made such mistakes. Here is an example:

The Orned Howl: He inks his bleyes, and weems very size, but is astoop as boutid as a beed can burr.

Which translates:

The Horned Owl: he blinks his eyes, and seems very wise, but is about as stupid as a bird can be.

Once you get the hang of it, the trick is to make the Spoonerism interesting and natural sounding, especially when you can rearrange the phonemes to come up with new words. Playing cards are useful, as in: who of tarts, hoar of farts, hive of farts, Spain of queeds, spack of jades, clicks of subs, space of aids, and so forth. Some Spoonerisms seem so natural that they stick in the mind: roak porst, sweet-streeper, flied crams.

In a typical Spoonerism (Spoonical typerism), you simply switch the initial phonemes of two words as in the above examples. If you exchange phonemes among more than two words with more than two syllables you can come up with elaborate concoctions that can baffle and irritate your audience, which rather defeats the purpose (for example “econcorate lab octions” for “elaborate concoctions”). Such concoctions require careful bookkeeping.

This reminds me of words with multiple consecutive double letters, with sub-bookkeeper being a prize-winner. A similar game is finding words with the most consecutive consonants. I know of two winners with six consonants each: Knightsbridge and catchphrase.

Another form of wordplay is substituting words that sound similar. In this hilarious version of Little Red Riding Hood, every word is a substitute: https://www.exploratorium.edu/exhibits/ladle/ Be sure to click on the spoken version. For those who don’t want to go to the site, here is the ending:

“Mural: yonder nor sorghum stenches shut ladle gulls stopper torque wet strainers.” Which translates: “Moral: under no circumstances should little girls stop or talk with strangers.”

A true masterpiece is “Mot d’heure, gousse, rames,” (Mother Goose Rhymes) which is best explained in the Wikipedia entry https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mots_d’Heures , which has links and references to other similar works. Per the Wikipedia entry, the book “is purportedly a collection of poems written in archaic French with learned glosses. In fact, they are English-language nursery rhymes written homophonically as a nonsensical French text (with pseudo-scholarly explanatory footnotes).”

When our kids were young, we played a game during dinner in which we would start with a word, then one of us would come up with a definition of a similar sounding word. The next person would break in with “no, that’s (word),” then a new definition, new word, and so on. We would end up weeping with laughter.

Edward Gorey was an artist and writer known for “His characteristic pen-and-ink drawings [that] often depict vaguely unsettling narrative scenes in Victorian and Edwardian settings” to quote his Wikipedia entry. We own a wonderful little book he wrote called “15 Two”, now a collectors item. It imitates didactic Victorian friezes that one would apply around the walls of the nursery, in a format that would allow you to copy it as a frieze.

The book shows strange animals that look like a cross between a pig and a hippo following each other, each with a speech balloon containing a word. Large block capital letters standing in the bleak landscape spell out “The Nursery Frieze Edward Gorey,” perversely starting with the “E” in “nursery.”

The words in the speech balloons form rhymes, and are mix of obscure and common words:

Archipelago, cardamon, obloquy, tacks

Ignavia, samisen, bandages, wax

Gavelkind, turmeric, imbat, cedilla

Cassation, hendiadys, quincunx, vanilla

Corposant, madrepore, ophicleide, paste

Jequirity, tombola, sphagnum, distaste

Aceldema, lunistice, yarborough, cranium

Febrifuge, ampersand, hubris, geranium

Opopanax, thunder, dismemberment, baize

Hellebore, obelus, cartilage, maze

Antigropelos, piacle, occamy, whistle

Maremma, accismus, badigeon, epistle

Quodlibet, catafalque, hiccup, remorse

Idioticon, gibus, botargo, divorce

Phylactery, gegenschein, clavicle, sago

Ballonion, thurible, aphthong, plumbago

Amaranth, rhoncus, pantechnicon, hymn

Diaeresis, purlicue, sparadrap, whim

Cicatrix, salsify, palindrome, Bosphorus

Narthex, betrayal, chalcedony, phosphorus

Ligament, exequies, spandrel, chandoo

Gehenna, etui, anamorphosis, glue

Wapentake, orrery, aspic, mistrust

Ichor, ganosis, velleity, dust.

The ominous ending is typical Gorey. I’ve just scratched the surface of wordplay, and hope you will explore its pleasures.

4 thoughts on “One of my obsessions: wordplay”

  1. Gordon,

    What a treat to wake up to your wordplay post. Spoonerisms are legendary in our family, like duppy pog, cussy pat, runny babbit and time to shake a tower.

    We had the French homophone book around when our daughters were young. And now they are having their own children, which brought to mind this first line ”un petit d’un petit”. That’s ”a little one of a little one”, or Humpty, dumpty.

    My mother was the one who got me started. “Mardon me padam, but this pie is occupued; may I sew you to another sheet?”

    When the girls were young, every time we’d leave the car to go into the house I’d say “In y’ go, Jones”. They damn near exploded when they discovered the source, and our youngest daughter is planting the same time bomb in her own daughter.

    I miss you.

    Bill

  2. As you know, my wife is from France, so it should not come as a surprise that I closed postcards with spoonerisms in French. Bosses grises. Beaux grisous.

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