Whenever I put a phrase answer in a grid one of the first things I look at – especially if nothing else has immediately sprung out – is whether or not the opening letters point to a Spoonerism. Often they don’t but, when they do, the temptation is there, but it’s tinged with reluctance. And that’s difficult to understand.
Like anagrams, charades, containers, homophones, puns and the other devices in the cryptic setter’s armoury, Spoonerisms have been an accepted part of wordplay pretty much from day one. And yet we can feel nervous about using them. As ‘joke’ devices they are fairly closely related to puns, at least to the extent that – like a pun-based joke – the best and most satisfying reaction is a groan. In fact, the more accurate the pronunciation the less likely it is to elicit a groan-based giggle, and maybe that’s part of the problem. In a recent clue the answer COASTGUARD happily offered GHOST CARD and, as I say the two to myself, there seems to be very little argument against the Spoonerism being a ‘direct’ pronunciation.
So it feels slightly odd that such apparent accuracy often draws complaint. Is looser better? And does that apply to puns?
Two UK newspapers, the Telegraph and Independent, use puns to form the first answers in their concise/quick crosswords. The Indy tends to go for accuracy in pronunciation, but sometimes it takes a while to spot the Telegraph pun because it is deliberately loose and, as a result, often very funny. I’m not saying one is better than the other because what each asks of the solver is quite different, but on a personal level I find the Telegraph puns far more… groan-worthy, and in an entirely pleasant way.
And yet Spoonerisms, which are in effect working on the same principle, tend to get people annoyed. One commenter has even said “I don’t like Spoonerisms at all in any crossword”.
Spoonerisms are here to stay as they always have been, but it seems unlikely that they will ever be as fully accepted as other wordplay devices. Setters can’t really win. Too accurate a pronunciation, the less (potentially) the giggle factor. Go the other way and you quickly get caught up in the same sort of dissatisfaction often expressed with homophones.