Language, that remarkable and singular human ability, invites us to play, and like all play, wordplay may be spontaneous or laborious, freely associating or rule bound, purposeful or inadvertent. Take the pun, for example. Puns now seem so effortful and contrived that they invite groans or a sock in the arm. But two centuries ago, when patient people practiced conversation as a contest and a high art, hearers esteemed puns above all other playful speech.

An authentic example that circulated aboard ship in the Napoleonic era appears in Patrick O’Brien’s nautical novels. His character Stephen Maturin, naval surgeon and naturalist, was nevertheless at sea when it came to seafaring jargon. When he inquired about the nightly “dog watch,” shipmates told Maturin that maritime custom shortened wee hour sentry duty to help insure that sailors stay watchful. Without skipping a beat, Maturin responded, “then the dog watch is cur-tailed.” His tablemates roared.

Slips of the tongue produce puns that turn the joke on the speaker. In front of a large American history survey class, for instance, I once tried to refer to Thomas Jefferson’s last will and testament; instead I said “last will and testicle.” The students doubled over. Facing this classic Freudian slip, what could I do other than pretend that I meant it? Of course Freud famously thought that slips of the tongue like these revealed hidden preoccupations. But modern cognitive psychologists undermine this explanation for the slip. They tell us that tangled phrases are primarily traffic problems resulting from mistakes in selection, retrieval, switching, sequencing, and the like. Slips predictably occur in the second and third syllable. Knowing that accidents like these conspire with comedy may not relieve the embarrassment after a speech error, but it should lighten the perpetrator’s sense of psychopathology. Say “pass the bed and butter” to your enchanting tablemate, and you might mean nothing special by it.

Caricature of Mr. WA Spooner, Published in Vanity Fair, April 1898

Caricature of Mr. WA Spooner

One of the most famous word-manglers, the Rev. William Archibald Spooner, Warden of New College at Oxford, a teacher and a scholar, was prone to exchange letters in adjacent words. He was a word botcher, not a bird watcher. When trying to introduce a famous hymn, Spooner called for the congregation to sing “Kinquering Congs their Titles Take.” When he tried to say “the rate of wages will press hard upon the employer,” it came out more sympathetically and ominously as the “weight of rages.”

Another variety of involuntary wordplay involves misheard words and phrases and the way clued-in audiences receive the mistakes as inside jokes. We conveniently and reflexively understand words to mean what we understand them to mean. Song lyrics, often written in an archaic or histrionic way will tempt us to hear the familiar. Can we blame children for translating the pretty but contorted opening to the American national anthem as “José can you see by the Don Zurley light?” Recited poems pose similar problems when meaning decouples from sound and rhythm. “Half a league, half a league, half a league onward!” easily morphs to “heavily, heavily, heavily goner.” Or how about, “Good Kind Wenceslaus car backed out on a piece of Steven.” In fact linguists give this kind of mix-up a technical term, the “mondegreen,” naming it after a common mishearing of a Scottish ballad which holds the line “they hae slain the Earl O’Moray and lain him on the green.”

We still share a mondegreen that derives from the ancient Latin mass. When the priest raised the host and intoned “hoc enim corpus meum” (this is my body), dazzled hearers not literate in Latin rendered this powerful incantation as “hocus pocus.” Many long years later, magicians still impress spectators with this bit of impious dog-Latin when they conjure a rabbit from a top hat.

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