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BMJ. Mar 14, 1998; 316(7134): 845.
PMCID: PMC1112774
When I use a word . . .

Medical Greek

Jeff Aronson, clinical pharmacologist, Oxford

The Reverend Spooner (1844-1930), warden of New College Oxford 1903-24, is well known for the verbal tic that we call a spoonerism. Spoonerisms are formed by metaplasm or metathesis, which were first defined by Henry Peachum in The garden of eloquence conteyning the figures of grammer and rhetorick (1577): “Metaplasmus, is a transformation of Letters, or syllables in single words ... eyther for cause of necessity, or else to make the verse more fine” and “Metathesis, when letters be transposed in a word, and remoued from their proper places.” A good example of metathesis quoted in the Oxford English Dictionary is the change from Fastolph to Falstaff.

However, both metathesis and metaplasm seem to be restricted to changes within a single word, rather than to transpositions between two words, which is what spoonerism more commonly means. A more natural word, perhaps, would be metaphasis, which is not to be found anywhere in the Oxford English Dictionary, but appears in an article about Spooner’s dysgraphia (Proc R Soc Med 1976;69:639-48) by John Potter, who writes that Punch described Spooner as “Oxford’s great metaphasiarch” and quotes Sir Ernest Barker (Age and Youth, OUP 1953): “[Spooner] was seldom guilty of metaphasis or the transposition of sounds.”

Marrowsky is an earlier alternative, defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “a variety of slang, or a slip in speaking, characterized by transposition of initial letters, syllables, or parts of two words.” The first example quoted dates from 1863, antedating the first citation for spoonerism by 37 years. The origin of “marrowsky” is not known. In Notes and Queries (1923;13th series/I:331) an anonymous correspondent suggested that it might have been from a Polish count, well known in London circles at one time. One H Askew replied, “I think that the Polish Count referred to may be identified with Count Joseph Boruwlaski, the celebrated Polish dwarf, who was born near Chaliez in Polish Russia, in November 1739.” The original questioner then asked (1924;146:125) “What claim had [Boruwlaski] on the word ‘Marrowskying’? Did his autobiography contain any spoonerisms or pre-spoonerisms?” No one replied to this question, although several gave information on where portraits of the count could be found. The English translation (1792) of Boruwlaski’s French autobiography does not mention marrowskying, and I think that he is a red herring. Marrowsky remains unidentified.

There are, however, even earlier terms. Hotten’s Dictionary of Modern Slang (1860) refers to “medical Greek” and Otto Jespersen, in Language (1922), to “hospital Greek.” In his Dictionary of Historical Slang, Eric Partridge writes that “medical Greek” dates from about 1800, but he gives no examples. He also says that Albert Smith called marrowskying “Gower Street dialect” in 1848, so presumably the hospital from which it originated was University College Hospital. The source of Partridge’s information was probably Slang and its Analogues by JS Farmer and WE Henley (1896), who wrote under “marrowsky” that “At the London University they had a way of disguising English (described by Albert Smith in ‘Mr Ledbury,’ 1848, as the Gower-street dialect).”

Does anyone in Gower Street have more information? Does anybody have a copy of “Mr Ledbury”?


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