Wednesday, August 22, 2012


William Archibald Spooner

      Eminent for the Spoken Word

Todd Akin
The verb misspeak does not appear in my desk copy of Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.  But then it’s only the ninth edition, from 1987.  If I am going to continue to follow American politics I am going to have to get something more up-to-date, because recently our politicians have been misspeaking all over the place, with a promiscuity that makes my oak tree’s annual production of acorns seem parsimonious.  From the look of things, to misspeak ought to mean to mispronounce, as President Bush used to misspeak nuclear and as practically everybody misspeaks kiln.  Another familiar form of misspeaking, one at which I myself am expert, is to call one offspring by the name of another, or in the climactic sentence of a brilliant lecture on St. Bonaventure’s theory of something or other, to attribute it to St. Thomas.

            But political misspeak, like political speak altogether, is of a different genus.  To misspeak politically is to get caught out in a lie, or in nonsense so appalling that a coherent lie would be preferable to it.  The latest example, as the whole world now knows, features the idiotic remarks of Congressman Todd Akin (R-Missouri), now a candidate for the Senate, concerning pregnancies eventuating from acts of rape.  “From what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare,” Akin said. “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something, I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be of the rapist, and not attacking the child.”

            Within a few hours just about everybody in the Amerian political world, led by such vestigial voices of good sense as remain within the Republican Party, was counseling Akin’s immediate if not retroactive retirement from politics; but he still had one staunch supporter.  That was his electoral rival Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri), who had just been transformed by fifty-eight words of voodoo gynecology from dead duck to soaring eagle.  Mr. Akin apologized for having misspoken.  But of course he had not misspoken; he had merely spoken idiotically.  I presume he had also fibbed in citing the opinion of “doctors” to authorize the idiocy, but I hope that whoever regulates medical licenses in the state of Missouri has launched a vigorous investigation on the off chance he spoke truth.

            There is of course such a thing as real misspeaking, which can be quite interesting.  In English there is often a considerable gap between the way a word looks on paper and the way it is voiced by native speakers.  Americans misspeak about half the topographic names of England, often to the visible amusement of the locals.  We are also weak on certain surnames.  Why should Saint John be Sinjun, or Taliaferro Tolliver?  Brits wreak their revenge by pronouncing the largest city in Texas as though it were house + ton, which of course Houston Street in lower Manhattan really is.  Curious, that.  I used to listen to Books on Tape as I drove around in my pick-up.  I listened to the British actor Jeremy Irons read an English version of Stendahl’s The Red and the Black.  By this accident I learned that Irons, who is a very classy Shakespearean actor, labored under the misapprehension that the city of Besançon in the Franche Comté is pronounced Bezankon.

            A special category of misspeaks—the spoonerism—is named after William Archibald Spooner (1843-1930) an Oxford don and editor of Tacitus, who allegedly had a penchant for confusing the initial consonants of words in his intended sentences.  Most of the misspeaks attributed to him are probably apocryphal, but the following outpouring of affection for the aging Queen Victoria may be genuine: "Three cheers for our queer old dean!"
Our dear old queen
Our queer old dean

            When I was young there was a radio program called “Pardon My Blooper” that collected many of the verbal blunders recorded from live broadcasts.  Although most of them seemed to feature ribald double entendres, some were charmingly innocent.  One I remember came at the end of a religious program—they used to exist on the major networks—with the announcer signing off with a biblical citation (Ecclesiastes 11:1):  “Remember—cast your broad upon the waters.  This is the National Breadcasting Corporation.”

            I cannot vouch for the authenticity of the best spoonerism that has come my way, allegedly attributable to the Foreign Language Services of the BBC.  It is in French, but French of the very best kind—meaning French that you don’t have to know any French to understand.   The announcer was discussing demographic developments in southern Africa, and in particular the burgeoning population in what are today the coastal provinces of the Cape of Good Hope—the Western Cape, the Eastern Cape, and KwaZulu-Natal.  Intending to say “la population énorme du Cap,” he said instead “la copulation énorme du Pape”!   Perhaps that was what Akin had in mind by “legitimate rape”?