Sue Bruns: Word play: Ever get your merds wixed up? I mean, words mixed up?
An appreciation for word play comes fairly early in language development and can be an important part of that development. Children are fascinated by jingles and rhyme, alliteration, puns and malapropisms long before they even know what all of these things are.
Let’s start with rhyme. Mother Goose knew it and Dr. Suess grew it! (If you’re observant you noticed the double rhyme in that last sentence.) Children learn vocabulary and more through rhyming. Once a child gets the concept of rhyming, he can predict what may come next in the context of a rhyming poem or story, especially if the child is familiar with the story and uses the pictures as clues:
“I do not like them, Sam-I-am. I do not like green eggs and ____.” (I’m guessing very few of my readers are unable to fill in the blank.)
Advertisers get children’s attention with wordplay, too, with jingles like “The bigger the burger, the better the burger, the burgers are better at Burger King.” Tongue twisters, by the way, are examples of alliteration (the repetition of initial consonant sounds).
Some songs amuse us with word play, like “The Name Game.” (Let’s do “Jimmy”: “Jimmy, Jimmy, bo bimmy, bonana fanna fo fimmy, fee fy mo mimmy, Jimmy!”)
Our ability to understand and create word play and puns expands with increased vocabulary and knowledge of various facts and concepts. By an early age, most children can hear the humor in this joke: Why was 6 afraid of 7? Because 7 8 9. (If the joke is written rather than spoken, however, it may be more difficult.)
Once the child has expanded his vocabulary and knows more sophisticated concepts, the puns can be more abstract:
Nurse: Doctor, there is an invisible man in your waiting room.
Doctor: Tell him I can’t see him now.
Wise crackers and punsters like to invent twists of phrases:
A man entered a local paper’s pun contest. He sent in ten different puns, in the hope that at least one of them would win. Unfortunately, no pun in ten did.
Children sometimes invent their own puns unintentionally, putting together what they thought they heard with what they assumed was meant:
Big sister and little brother sat together in church. Little brother giggled and talked out loud. Finally, big sister said, “You’re not supposed to talk out loud in church.”
“Why?” asked little brother defiantly. “Who’s going to stop me?”
“Those men in the back of the church!” she said. “They’re hushers!”
You may recall similar misinterpretations by your own children or grandchildren. One of my favorites comes from my friend Diane, whose daughter learned about brushing and flossing and told her mother about the nice gentle high dentist who had taught her.
Unintentionally getting your “merds wixed up” in this way results in “spoonerisms,” named for the Reverend William Archibald Spooner (1844-1930) of London who is probably credited with more mixed up words than he actually misspoke. Among his more famous verbal foibles are “The Lord is a shoving leopard,” (rather embarrassing when spoken from the pulpit) and “It is kiss-tomary to cuss the bride,” (which could start off a young couple on a very bad foot). My personal favorite is the rather harmless but silly: “Mardon me, padam, but this pie is occu-pewed. Allow me to sew you to another sheet.”
Sometimes words aren’t phonetically mixed up; they’re just misunderstood or misspoken. A former student of mine shared one such phrase that her mother had accidentally coined: “Do you want me to do it, or should I?” The phrase became a fast favorite for anyone feeling she is bearing the brunt of a job.
Misunderstandings sometimes result in humorous exchanges. Years ago, when I worked as a meat wrapper in a grocery store, I left the coolness of the meat department and walked to the parking lot on a 90-plus degree afternoon.
Thinking I could go for a nice cool drink at a local watering hole called The Viking, I yelled across the parking lot to my friend and co-worker, “Wow, it’s hot out here. Want to go to the Viking?”
“No,” she yelled back, quite vehemently, thinking I’d invited her to go biking. “It’s too hot.”
Not realizing she’d misunderstood, I tried to coax, “We could have a Sun Stroke,” referring to a new alcoholic beverage we had talked about earlier.
“Yeah,” she said, still thinking of biking. “We probably would.”
Then she got in her car and left as I stood there puzzled.
Were we meeting for a drink or not?