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DOCTOR SPOONER was one of the rare few who have not only
become a legend during their lifetime, but, like Colonel Boycott,
given their name to a new word. The word "Spoonerism" appeared
in our dictionaries years before Spooner's death. A Spoonerism is
defined—I quote the big Oxford Dictionary—as "an accidental
transposition of the initial sounds, or other parts, of two or more
words." The example given in the Concise Oxford Dictionary is "a
well-boiled icicle" instead of "a well-oiled bicycle"—to my mind, a
very poor one, but I hope to give plenty of better ones later.
Almost all of us make Spoonerisms sometimes, and some people
deliberately invent them. Why, then, has Spooner's name been
attached to this verbal form of slip ? And why have so many Spooner-
isms been quite unjustly fastened on to him as their parent? The
growth of a legend such as this is quite an interesting subject for study,
and I shall discuss the Spoonerism from this angle. I had the good
fortune to serve under Doctor Spooner for six years when I was a
Fellow of New College and he was Warden of that ancient and dis-
tinguished foundation. He established what must, I think, be a
record for an Oxford or Cambridge college, namely continuous
residence for sixty-three years without missing a single term—first as
undergraduate, then as Fellow and Tutor, then Dean, and eventually
Warden. And he survived and remained active for several years
after his retirement at the age of eighty.
Though he published very little, he was a good scholar and a good
teacher. He was an excellent administrator, with the rare gift of
making people feel that he was deeply interested in their own partic-
ular affairs. He worked very hard, without any thought of self, and
gave the impression of possessing that rare quality which I can only
describe as saintliness. But he had his peculiarities. To begin with,
he was an albino—not a full albino with pink eyes, but one with very
pale blue eyes and white hair just tinged with straw-colour. As is
common with albinos, he was very short-sighted and used to read with
his eyes within a couple of inches of the paper. When, at the age of
thirteen, I went up to stand for a scholarship at Eton, he was the
examiner, and I shall never forget seeing him reading our exam papers
in this fashion, every now and then putting the paper down on the
desk and making a big mark with a big blue pencil on some mistake—