Spoonerisms, mondegreens and other common language errors

Spoonerisms, mondegreens and other common language errors

Everyone makes occasional mistakes while speaking. Even if you’ve been speaking French since birth, that won’t stop you from tripping over a sentence every once in a while . Although these slip-ups may seem random, there are certain mistakes that tend to repeat themselves . So much so that they even have names, such as spoonerisms (mistakes, errors that occur when speaking) and mondegreens (errors that occur when listening). We decided to examine these categories of linguistic faults to see what they are and why they occur. Here are the stories behind the many missteps from our mouths. 

Spoonerisms (or contrepèteries)

Definition These are two sounds that are interchanged in a sentence. While spoonerisms are usually a mistake, they are sometimes used to create a fun pun, as in Shel Silverstein’s Runny Babbit .

Example: Say “the heaviest rod” instead of “the longest day”.

Where does this name come from ? Spoonerisms are named after William Archibald Spooner , who held the office of donat Oxford University. He was a well-liked man, with amusing eccentricities: he often mixed up the letters, which is why his name became forever attached to this phenomenon. You can find plenty of quotes attributed to him on the internet – most calling for a toast to the “queer old dean” instead of the “dear old queen” – but most of the time, they are inaccurate. Although Spooner is proven to have made some funny mistakes, many of the quotes supposedly from his origin are fabricated in the same way as many quotes wrongly attributed to Winston Churchill or Mark Twain.

Why do they occur?How your brain turns ideas into words is complicated, and there’s still a lot of research to be done on the whole process. However, it seems that spoonerisms occur because of a problem in your “speech plan”. A speech plane is basically the plane your brain makes to move your mouth to make sounds that convey what you want to say. When you say “chocolate,” for example, your brain has to tell your mouth how to move from the “ch” sound to the “k” sound, to the “l” sound, with vowels in between. This process is usually smooth: you’ve probably never had to worry about where to put your tongue and when, but sometimes your brain gets confused. And these confusions are often due to the fact that you havetwo possible speech planes and your brain isn’t sure which to use, then it splits the difference. Occasionally, spoonerism will result.


Definition It’s when you hear something that’s incorrect, but it still ends up making sense to you. Often they perform with music or poetry.

Example: A famous example is Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Rain”, where the phrase is “Scuse me while I kiss the sky”, but many people hear “Scouse me while I kiss this guy”.

Where does this name come from ? The name “mondegreen” comes from a 1954 essay by Harper , in which author Sylvia Wright mentions having misheard a line from the poem “The Bonnie Earl O’ Moray.” The line actually said “They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray / And laid him on the green”, but she had heard “And Lady Mondegreen (And Lady Mondegreen). In this reading, it would be a double murder, instead of murder and burial.

Why do they occur? There is some debate about the causes of mondegreens. Most psychologists agree that this often happens in music because it is a one-sided medium, there is often very little context, and singers and poets use words and phrases that everyone world does not know. The disagreement centers on how the brain produces poor hearing. Steven Connor , professor of English at the University of Cambridge, says that if your brain can’t make sense of a word, it will just fill in what makes the most sense. On the other side, psychologist and linguist Steven Pinkerhas often said that mondegreens makes less sense than the original sentence. This is why, according to him, mondegreens are not necessarily what makes the most sense, but rather what the brain wants to hear the most. Either way, they’ve become a weird cultural phenomenon.


Definition Much like mondegreens, eggcorns occur when a common phrase is replaced with one that is similar or identical in sounding.

Example: Say “pre-Madonna” instead of “prima donna”. 

Where does this name come from ? The word was coined by linguist Geoffrey Pullum in 2003. It is itself an eggcorn from the word “acorn”. 

Why do they occur? While misnomers are word replacements that make a statement totally absurd, an eggcorn tends to make at least some sense. The term ‘deep-seated’, for example, is often replaced by ‘deep-seeded’. Although not technically correct, it is pronounced exactly the same way by Americans, and the meaning of the original term (that something is particularly deep) is still there. It also happens that the eggcorn occurs because a sentence is obsolete, and the speaker therefore does not know the original term. For example, people call something the “end” instead of the more appropriate term “knell”, because who still says “knell”?

Missed acts

Definition These are errors in language that are caused by a person’s unconscious mind sliding to the surface. Today, the term has been generalized by some to refer to any error in language.

Example: Misdeeds don’t have many general examples because they’re supposed to relate to the innermost thoughts of a single speaker. For an example from pop culture, there’s an episode of Friends where Ross marries Emma. However, during his vows, he says he would “take Rachel”, which is the name of his ex-girlfriend. The implication in the episode is that he still had deep feelings for Rachel, and so the mistake ruined his marriage.

Where does this name come from ? Sigmund Freud, the famous 20th century psychologist from Vienna, Austria, is renowned for linking actions to deep, unrecognized desires. This phrase is taken from his work in Psychopathology of Everyday Life , a book which contains an exhaustive list of errors which he believes are of great importance.

Why do they occur? Although he is certainly a giant in the field of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud is today largely discredited. Cognitive psychologists tend to believe that, more often than not, there are more innocent explanations for slips (some of which are mentioned in other sections of this article). People are more likely to make mistakes when they’re tired or distracted, which means sometimes the brain, like any other part of the body, just makes mistakes. But there’s something seductive about the idea that someone’s true feelings can be conveyed through a misplaced expression.

But if Freudian misdeeds are a real phenomenon, they are very difficult to test. How do you research a person’s innermost thoughts? Well, in 1979 they decided to give it a try with a strange study. The researchers gathered a number of “heterosexual men”, who were divided into three groups. The first group, the control group, was met by a middle-aged teacher, and group members were asked to repeat word pairs designed to encourage spoonerisms, such as saying “mack bud” (corn bud) instead of “back mud”. The second group did the same, but instead of a middle-aged professor, they were greeted by a lab assistant wearing “a very short skirt and some sort of translucent blouse.” The second group was more inclined to make sexual counterpoints [“fast passion” instead of “past fashion”], but they made the same number of mistakes overall. The third group was back with the middle-aged teacher, but they were told there was a risk of getting an electric shock at some point during the study, although that didn’t actually happen. . The electrified third group, like the enticed second group, made more errors related to their stimulus [‘cursed wattage’ instead of ‘worst cottage’]. The results seem to fit the theory that people’s mistakes are influenced by what’s on their mind. made more errors related to their stimulus [‘cursed wattage’ instead of ‘worst cottage’]. The results seem to fit the theory that people’s mistakes are influenced by what’s on their mind. made more errors related to their stimulus [‘cursed wattage’ instead of ‘worst cottage’]. The results seem to fit the theory that people’s mistakes are influenced by what’s on their mind.

So there is some evidence that if something is particularly weighing you down, it could cause some sort of error in your speech. But the vast majority of errors probably don’t have such a solid subtext. When you ask someone to give you ‘pashed motato’ (instead of ‘mashed potato’), it’s not because there’s something in your subconscious has swapped the letters. But even without psychological underpinnings, verbal slips can be a source of entertainment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *