My usual trail run was a little slow the other day, because it’s hard to run when you’re laughing.
I had been tooling along my regular 6.5-mile route, wending up and down hills, when I encountered a long string of high-school runners heading the other direction. The local cross-country team, gearing up for the new season!
Seeing these youngsters always gladdens my heart. Their faces are etched with effort and they’re breathing hard. None wears ear buds; they’re concentrating on their running, taking the training seriously. They’re learning the meaning of hard effort and perseverance. They’re building muscles and stamina and — most of all — character. It’s immensely heartening to encounter them.
In my excitement, I called out encouragement to each young runner as we passed each other, the standard phrases: Good work! Nice job! Way to be!
Then I kind of forgot where I was with all the talking, because I was also running, and apparently can’t do both successfully at the same time. “Nice jerk!” I called out brightly to the next runner, a young man who looked at me strangely.
My mortification passed less quickly than he did, a lot less quickly: 50 yards farther down the trail, I was laughing too hard to run. No sooner had I recovered and resumed my pace when I recalled a similar miscue, this one by a canoeist friend who was out on rough water with a large group of paddlers. A pricey, empty canoe had somehow gotten loose of the dock, and was drifting perilously near the lake’s rocky shore.
My friend — a shy woman who was only trying to help — sounded a loud warning to the canoe’s owner: “Hey!” she yelled. “It’s going to shit the whore!”
After a second of bewildered silence, a wave of uproarious laughter threatened to swamp my friend, who turned redder than sunset and sank quietly between the gunwales.
Recalling this story stopped me in my tracks again; this time I had to walk the length of a football field before I could stifle my laughter sufficiently to resume running. Then I thought of the story of a television newscaster who reported on-air that a well-known politician had suffered a “near hatal fart attack.” This occasioned my third walking break, after which I was eventually able to compose myself sufficiently to finish my run as, well … a run.
A lot goes wrong with our shrinking brains as we grow older, but spoonerisms — the experience of transposing letters or small parts of words when excited or embarrassed– can afflict anyone.
They’re named after William Archibald Spooner, an absent-minded Oxford don who supposedly had a habit of mangling words in just this manner. (“You have hissed all my mystery lectures.”)
It’s not exactly clear what is happening in our brains when we make such gaffes. But a study published by German researchers in a 2007 issue of the journal Cerebral Cortex (next to Cosmo in the checkout aisle) employed a laboratory methodology known to increase the incidence of spoonerisms. The technique primes subjects with inductor word pairs (ball doze, bean deck, bash door) and then presents them with a target pair (say, darn bore) which is then more likely to be rendered as a full or partial spoonerism (barn door, darn door).
“Speech errors in this task are thought to occur because two competing speech plans become activated and the subject is unable to inhibit the erroneous plan prior to vocalization,” wrote the study authors. Their use of sophisticated algorithms and computer technology to measure brain activity as the slips occurred seemed to confirm the hypothesis.
It’s some comfort to we mature folks that the study’s subjects were all young and neurologically healthy; spoonerisms are not a function of age, which cannot be said of many linguistic deficits. I once made my living with words, and even at 57 — still a few years from full-on dotage — the erosion of grey matter is apparent. Occasionally, I can’t find the right word and – more disturbing – sometimes randomly substitute completely unrelated words for the one I banana.
Ah, well. The most reliably rewarding part of being human may be the comedic value. Our lives sometimes seem a succession of pratfalls and miscues; slips of the tongue are hardly the worst of it.
Let us laugh freely then, and encourage each other to carry on as best we can, inelegant yet unembarrassed: Wood gerk, my friends. Bay to we.
This post first appeared two years ago, an interval during which dotage has edged closer.