Tips of the slung: Spoonerisms provoke giggles


Q. "You hissed my mystery lecture," the professor once rebuked a student, adding disgustedly, "You have tasted two worms." Both lines eventually became classics. What was going on here, and who was the speaker? ­E. Fudd

 A. These are "Spoonerisms," letter or sound transpositions by the Reverend W.A. Spooner, Anglican priest and scholar of the early 20th century. When Spooner grew agitated by someone "missing a history lecture" and "wasting two terms," he inadvertently fired off the two classics. Presiding at a wedding with a reluctant bridegroom: "Son, it is now kisstomary to cuss the bride."

These are not believed to be Freudian but to originate in the deeper processes of language itself, says Harvard's Steven Pinker, author of The Language Instinct. Most slips are simply boring, the brain planning out a sentence and setting up a framework for the sounds– a series of slots for the nouns and verbs and vowels and consonants– that then get inserted wrong. Occasionally, when two sounds end up in each other's slots, the result is a surprising "tip of the slung," or Spoonerism.

Q. Worldwide, where are the romantic lovers? ­R. Valentino

 A. Everywhere! answer Elaine Hatfield and Richard Rapson in Love & Sex: Cross-Cultural Perspectives. The old stereotype that amour flowers only in individualist cultures ignores reality. Survey samplings: When ethnic-American college students were asked if they'd ever been in love, 95 percent of Anglo Americans said yes, as did 86 percent of Mexican Americans, 72 percent of Chinese Americans.

And Elaine Hatfield's University of Hawaii students– their grandparents, parents, and they themselves coming from China, Europe, or the Pacific Islands, including the Philippines, Hawaii, Samoa, Guam, Tonga, Tahiti, and Fiji– all seemed vulnerable to that not-so-Western "many-splendored thing."

"If anything, it was the Pacific Islanders who were the real romantics."

When asked "Are you in love now?" 61 percent of Russian men and 73 percent of Russian women said "Yes," as did 53 percent-63 percent of Americans, 41 percent-63 percent of Japanese....

In cultures East or West, rich or poor, industrial or non-, the love beat goes on!

Q. You hear of couples having four boys, five boys, six boys and more without any girls. Or vice versa. Do boys or girls just run in certain families, stacking the offspring deck? ­R. Kennedy

 A. The odds on having a string of boys (or girls) is the same as tossing a coin and getting a string of heads (or tails), says Yale biologist Robert Wyman: one half of all couples with two kids will have 2B or 2G; one quarter of couples with three kids will have 3B or 3G; 1/16 with 5 kids will have 5B or 5G. Just by chance. "So if you know 16 families with five kids, talk to them. Odds are, one will have five of a kind."

Real life is a little more complicated in that more boys are born than girls (106-100), says Wyman. One statistician who studied the issue, as reported by psychologist David G. Myers in Intuition: Its Powers and Perils, was prompted by a sister who said, "Jackson men produce boys" (not his real name). Indeed, eight Jackson men had produced 21 boys and three girls. So he analyzed 6,089 randomly sampled families and found no clear evidence of sex bias. For example, among 132 four-child families that started off with three children of the same sex, 69 had a fourth child of the same sex, 63 of the other, i.e., no significant stacking. And says Myers, "Since Jackson's sister made her remark, the Jackson men have had five more children, four of whom are girls."


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