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I was idly watching a butterfly in my garden; a black and white one, who looked as though he had no particular place to go and was just window shopping; when I thought, not for the first time, what a ridiculous word “butterfly” is. The Oxford dictionary says it comes from two Old English words, er, “butter” and “fly”. Yellow butterflies reminding some contemporary of King Arthur of butter. Seems unlikely.
My theory has a lot more to recommend it. I think it was an Old English spoonerism. Some courtier of a Hagar the Horrible answered nervously that it was a “butterfly” when Hagar threw a goblet at it and asked what it was. It was of course a flutterby, but ever since, the stoonerism has spuck. The English are conservative.
I mean, that’s what it does. It flutters by. The same naming process was in force that named the fly the “fly”. What does a fly do? It flies. With some persistence, settling on people’s faces, when the weather is hot. I believe Homer notes the persistence of the fly in the Iliad. Just imagine Ajax, or Hector or some other hero going into single combat waving the flies away from his face. If he was holding a sword he would have been a real menace to society.
So the reverend William Archibald Spooner (1844-1930) was not by any means the inventor of spoonerisms. If you ever said inadvertently that you’ve just suffered a blushing crow, credit Hagar the Horrible for what is correctly a hagarism (not a plagiarism, which is probably something French people do at the beach).
Most spoonerisms are invented by the semantically curious anyway, like the enquiry, “Is it kisstomary to cuss the bride?”, and postdate Spooner. But there are more creative uses for spoonerisms. One of my favourites is Kenny Everett’s character Cupid Stunt, who always did everything “in the best of taste”; Kenny was the man who said: “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy”, which sums up the two great choices we have to make in life.
Talking of spoonerisms and television reminds me of a mondegreen that the Irish comedian Dave Allen recounted many times in his sketches. As a little boy he went to church regularly, and for years was convinced the priest was telling him something about the burial of Jesus when he said, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and, into the hole he goes”.
On the other hand malapropisms are literary and redolent of class snobbery. Poorly educated members of the lower classes make fools of themselves trying to ape their betters, as Mrs Malaprop does in Sheridan’s play the Rivals of 1775, by referring to “a nice derangement of epitaphs”, which is what you get when the drunks push over the headstones in a cemetery; when what she means is an arrangement of epithets (“nice” at that time meant an exact or skilful way of doing things). Once again, Mrs Malaprop was not the first to misuse the language this way, as it was one of the favourite comic devices of Will Shakespeare (whom the Rev. Spooner probably called Shrill Wakespeare).
Malapropisms are close to euphemisms in that they are combined in the oxymoron to make fun of undereducated people (which of course is everybody). When Oliver Hardy reproves Stan Laurel exasperatedly and says “That’s another fine mess you’ve got us into”, that’s an oxymoron (depending on the meaning of “fine” you alight on) but also inappropriate use of language (malaprop) and avoidance of unpleasant details (euphemistic).
Oxymorons have all kinds of uses, from insightful and profound ones (to be falsely true), to misleading ones, such as “a just war”; or “second strike capability”, the ability to drop the second atomic bomb (providing the thumb that presses the button hasn’t mutated).
Oxymorons are often used to sell things, such as the great opportunity to buy something called “tomorrow’s antique”, or, beloved of estate agents, “the handyman’s dream”.
Unfortunately the literal meaning of the term oxymoron isn’t an oxymoron. “Silly cow” doesn’t have the required apparent contradiction in meaning, unless cows are a lot smarter than they let on. Of course “oxymoron” doesn’t really come from silly cow, or even Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, that’s just a false etymology, a word by the way unrelated to entomology, which has more to do with the study of flutterbies.
Probably the most common wordplay (aside from doublethink, and we won’t go into that) is euphemism, the art of not saying what we mean (or not meaning what we say?). This is an everyday occurrence, especially for social occasions with people we don’t know very well.
We’re always going to ‘the bathroom’ implying we might be taking a bath when we go and urinate, and usually add “only be a minute”, informing all that we won’t be defecating and leaving a smell for the next occupant to cope with.
Radiation of a more fatal kind, like attempting to launch the second nuclear attack, shows that nobody has fully absorbed the topic. An “energy release” sounds harmless enough even if it produces “a hazardous waste site”, and a nuclear leak is not too alarming if the situation is only “above critical”.
Terms of euphemism often mimic more legitimate terms. “Law and order” for police state, “warrantless investigation” for terrorist attack (our side) or “managed news” for censorship.
Euphemism is often the product of a state’s bureaucracy, a structure which accepts no responsibility (taken by politicians), not affected by its own actions (suffered by members of the public), and concerned only with correct procedures. This isolation allows remapping of the relation between words and meanings.
Once the politician(s) control the bureaucracy you have the police state, and the members of the public don’t matter, and that is outlined definitely in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four.
The pervasive tautology we often come across is the product of militant advertising, which becomes an end in itself, so the same tags are used with many different products, such as “free gift” or “new discovery”. Often a statement masks its opposite state; “fresh” means tracked for weeks from source to retail outlet; “natural” means artificial; “home made” means factory produced and so on.
Many word games are not so sinister. We know some from literature. Alliteration and assonance are always available as ancillary achievements though we shouldn’t suppose those borrowed robes will conceal the nakedness beneath.
Perhaps the simplest form is the palindrome, akin to the crossword puzzle, the equivalent in other letters of saying, “Madam, I’m Adam”.
It would be foolish to take any words, even mine, at face value. Keep a list of the good ones. And watch out for flutterbies in your garden.
Only words, arbitrary symbols for meanings which are constantly shifting, even in the one individual brain; but a game whose rules we can learn.
©2016 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.