Sunday, January 24, 2010


Oh Boy, word lovers! Erin McKean, in today's Boston Globe's Ideas "Word" column writes about a new word trick, "Sweet-Tooth-Fairies." Like Mondegreens (a mis-heard word, like "Lady Mondegreen" for "laid him on the green," which is what gave the term its name), or palindromes (which spell the same back and forth, like RACECAR) or Spoonerisms (named for Dr. Spooner, an Oxford don who had the unfortunate tendency to frequently switch the first sounds of his words in a sentence, so he might chide a student, "You have hissed my mystery lectures!"), Sweet-Tooth-Fairies are a kind of English language word play.

The article in the Globe is a delight to read, both explaining about this new language toy, and offering charming and witty examples. A sweet-tooth-fairy is a mixing of two two-word phrases in English that don't usually go together, but that share a common word, as the name for the group illustrates: Sweet tooth + Tooth fairy = Sweet-Tooth-Fairy. McKean goes on:

The best sweet tooth fairies take a dramatic turn in the middle, merging wildly divergent things: magnetic personality disorder, poetic license plate, and victory lap dance. Some are self-reinforcing: fresh meat market, hard right wing, peer pressure cooker. Others are self-negating: frugal living large, upwardly mobile home, remote control freak, uninvited guest list. For word people, these little phrases offer much the same “aha” satisfaction as that famous optical illusion known as a Rubin vase, which forces first one interpretation (it’s a vase!) and then another (it’s two faces!). By putting words into an unaccustomed double role, they let us see ordinary English words for the truly versatile actors they are.

Some sweet tooth fairies seem as if they should be everyday items in the real world: It’s easy to imagine such things as party school supplies, red carpet bombing, and a grease monkey wrench. What driver isn’t speed camera shy? Some you wish actually existed: radio spot remover (does it remove stains with radio waves or does it fast-forward through radio ads?) and parlor game warden (a referee to enforce the rules of parlor games). Many nightspots and hotel bars would be pleasanter places if there were a piano bar exam. And who wouldn’t want to see the North pole vault? Or a drag queen bee? Most, however, are just plain funny: hired hand sanitizer, mind control-top pantyhose, bikini wax museum, Nobel prize fighter, pistol whipped cream, grain elevator shoes, false alarm clock, sex bomb shelter, dance card shark.
Unlike many word-games, Sweet-tooth-fairies can be traced to an inventor, Graham Hidderley/Burgess, "a grandfather, marketing maven, and actor in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, in the United Kingdom," according to the Globe article. Hidderly/Burgess prefers the slash in his name to the more usual hyphen one sees in British names. He has a website for this invention: The site includes a way to submit your own mash-up efforts for publication, as well as sub-categories of sweet-tooth-fairies (STF), and news of his slow work towards publication of a book collecting the STF. He recognizes:

* False Teeth Fairies ("...sweet tooth fairy pretenders who can't quite follow the rules.")

* STF with Braces and Scaffolding (extended STF that go on for more than 3 words)

* Songs and sentences with more than one STF fitted in

Not all are funny, but the ones that are good are knock-you-down funny. As McKean notes the best are the ones that grab you with a bit of truth about the paradox they reveal, or the relationship between the words. They remind me a bit of the best of George Carlin's word play, when they are really very good. Have fun!

The decoration is a Victorian card representing the tooth fairy. She looks much sweeter than the current movie posters.

1 comment:

Marie S. Newman said...

Nice post, Betsy--thanks. And I love the illustration.