Spoonerisms are great. I love them. Earlier in the week, I managed to supplant the traditional “You can’t pull the wool over my eyes, sweetheart” with the altogether more magnificent “You can’t pull the wool over my arse, sweeties.” Which, as you might imagine, cracked us both up.
Merry japes aside, saying the wrong thing at the wrong time can be either disastrous or hilarious – or, if you have a more cynical view of history, both at the same time. Here are some of my all-time favourites:
“They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist -“ The last words of American Civil War general John Sedgwick, May 9 1864
“Fire!” Presumably, the command given to some anonymous Italian anti-aircraft gunner in Tobruk by his commander on June 28 1940. Unfortunately the aircraft targeted and destroyed contained Marshal Balbo, supreme commander of all Italian forces in North Africa. As historian Ivor Matanle puts it: “This was neither the first time nor the last that the Italian forces employed the ‘own goal’ as a technique in warfare, but it was the only occasion when they used it to dispose of their own Commander in Chief.” Italy had, at this point, been a participant in World War Two for a whole eighteen days.
“Stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau. I do not feel there will be soon if ever a 50 or 60 point break from present levels, such as they have predicted. I expect to see the stock market a good deal higher within a few months.” Economist Irving Fisher, Professor of Economics at Yale, on October 17 1929. The Wall Street Crash that triggered the Great Depression happened twelve days later, on October 29.
“$100 Million is far too much to pay” IBM, in 1982, offered the chance to buy Microsoft.
“The concept is interesting and reasonably well-formed, but in order to earn better than a ‘C’ the idea must be feasible” A Yale university management professor, grading Fred Smith’s paper in which he proposed a reliable overnight delivery service. Fred Smith went on to found FedEx.
“The energy produced by breaking down the atom is a very poor kind of thing. Anyone who expects a source of power from the transformations of these atoms is talking moonshine.” Lord Ernest Rutherford, who theorised the existence of neutrons, discovered gamma radiation, worked out that radioactive half-life could be used to date matter, and whose work ultimately enabled the building of the world’s first nuclear bomb.
The list goes on and on and on and on and on. So my challenge to you this week, dear readers, is to leave your mark on history: say something not merely stupid, but notably stupid.
Just as every soldier has a field marshal’s bottom in his napkin, you have within you the capacity for some monumental error that will resound down through the centuries. It’s a form of immortality. Santayana would approve.