Puns and Spoonerisms in conflict?   2 comments

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.


Posted November 8, 2013 by Anax in Newsification

2 responses to “Puns and Spoonerisms in conflict?

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  1. There’ve been a few alternatives cropping up recently, i.e. Spooner as anagram fodder (I think it was in the Guardian a few weeks ago, can’t remember), and in last Saturday’s Times 1ac was “Hateful chap and others swapping tips for trial (4,4)” – a Spoonerism clue without the Rev! I suppose the phrase clued (TOAD REST) didn’t make sense so the setter felt he couldn’t use it, but I’m sure some would have.

    As for the Telegraph concise, that’s been going for at least 40 years, and was what got me interested in crosswords in the first place. My dad used to do the Telegraph cryptic every day, and pointed it out to me. It was probably the first puzzle I solved on my own. These days I prefer looking for the Nina in Times Concise puzzles, but I still marvel at the ingenuity of the Telegraph setters who’ve kept the tradition going for so long.

  2. I’ve almost always found Spoonerism clues hard to solve, but the eventual solution usually amuses me. (I noticed the well-worn Custer beaten / Buster Keaton turned up again recently!)
    On the subject of the Telegraph/Independent opening solution puns, I once suggested to the Telegraph’s Val Gilbert “Ptarmigan – Guru – Dunce – Port”, but she told me it unfortunately didn’t fit any of the standard grid templates. I guess it would be deemed in bad taste now, anyway.
    I hope to post another comment 8 months too late in the near future.

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