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"Runcible" is a nonsense word invented by Edward Lear. The word appears (as an adjective) several times in his works, most famously as the "runcible spoon" used by the Owl and the Pussycat. The word "runcible" was apparently one of Lear's favourite inventions, appearing in several of his works in reference to a number of different objects. In his verse self-portrait, The Self-Portrait of the Laureate of Nonsense, it is noted that "he weareth a runcible hat". Other poems include mention of a "runcible cat", a "runcible goose" (in the sense of "silly person"), and a "runcible wall".
- They dined on mince and slices of quince,
- which they ate with a runcible spoon.
Another mention of this piece of cutlery appears in the alphabetical illustrations Twenty-Six Nonsense Rhymes and Pictures. Its entry for D reads
- The Dolomphious Duck,
- who caught Spotted Frogs for her dinner
- with a Runcible Spoon
Lear often illustrated his own poems, and he drew a picture of the "dolomphious duck" holding in its beak a round-bowled spoon containing a frog.
Attempts to define the word
Lear does not appear to have had any firm idea of what the word "runcible" means. His whimsical nonsense verse celebrates words primarily for their sound, and a specific definition is not needed to appreciate his work. However, since the 1920s (several decades after Lear's death), modern dictionaries have generally defined a "runcible spoon" as a fork with three broad curved tines and a sharpened edge, used with pickles or hors d'oeuvres, such as a pickle fork. It is occasionally used as a synonym for "spork". However, this definition is not consistent with Lear's drawing, in which it is a ladle, nor does it account for the other "runcible" objects in Lear's poems.
It is also sometimes used to mean a "grapefruit spoon", a spoon with serrated edges around the bowl, and sometimes to mean a serving-spoon with a slotted bowl.
Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable defines a runcible spoon as: "A horn spoon with a bowl at each end, one the size of a table-spoon and the other the size of a tea-spoon. There is a joint midway between the two bowls by which the bowls can be folded over." The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as "a sharp-edged fork with three broad curved prongs". Neither dictionary cites a source for these definitions.
The "Notes & Queries" column in The Guardian also raised the question "What is a runcible spoon?" The fanciful answers proposed by readers included that it was a variety of spoon designed by Lear's friend George Runcy for the use of infants, or that it was a reference to a butler named Robert Runcie whose job included polishing the silver spoons. The final contribution pointed out that neither of these explained the runcible cat in "The Pobble Who Has No Toes" and simply suggested that "runcible objects (spoons or cats) exist no more than pobbles or feline-hiboutic matrimony".
The Straight Dope, while treating "runcible" as a nonsense word with no particular meaning, claims that an unspecified 1920s source connected the word "runcible" etymologically to Roncevaux — the connection being that a runcible spoon's cutting edge resembles a sword such as was used in the Battle of Roncevaux Pass. The Straight Dope adds that "modern students of runciosity" link the word in a different way to Roncevaux: The obsolete adjective "rouncival", meaning "gigantic", also derives from Roncevaux, either by way of a certain large variety of pea grown there, or from a once-current find of gigantic fossilized bones in the region.
In popular culture
The whimsical feel of the word "runcible" has led to its appearance in diverse arenas.
Used as an adjective
- In Harry Harrison's The Stainless Steel Rat series, an errant robot declares, "The runcible rhythm of ravenous raisins rolled through the rookery rambling and raving."
- In C. J. Sansom's novel Dissolution, set mainly in a monastery to be dissolved by Thomas Cromwell under Henry VIII, the lead character, Matthew Shardlake, a lawyer working for Cromwell, sups with the monks in their refectory "where a great haunch of beef was served with runcible peas." In this case the word is a version of "rounceval" meaning a large pea or marrowfat pea.
- In Claire Messud's novel When The World Was Steady the character Virginia describes her boss in this way: "Truth be told, she had never found Simon in the least physically attractive: he was squat and runcible and slightly foolish."
- In Ursula K. Le Guin's illustrated children's story "Solomon Leviathan's nine hundred and thirty-first trip around the world", the main characters, a giraffe and a boa constrictor, live on a "runcible island".
- In The End, the thirteenth and final book in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events series, Sunny Baudelaire and Mrs. Caliban prepare ceviche with a runcible spoon. (Chapter 5)
Used as a spoon or other device
- In the board game Kill Doctor Lucky, a runcible spoon is one of the weapons players can use to kill Doctor Lucky.
- In Neal Asher's Polity series of novels, including Gridlinked, runcible is the name given to an interstellar wormhole generator/teleporter, as an homage to the ansible. The central field for these devices is also known as the runcible's spoon.
- In Neal Stephenson's novel The Diamond Age, Runcible is a code name for the Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, an educational computer.
- In Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, an exhibition fight with runcible spoons is held.
- In Lemony Snicket's The End, an island cult eats using only runcible spoons.
- In the TV series Dead Like Me, Rube (a grim reaper) is trying to run the kitchen of Angus Cook (whose soul Rube took), with Angus haunting the kitchen until a replacement cook can be found. Angus lectures Rube on using the "runcible" with eggs, and further identifies it as "the spoon with the holes".
- In Alfred Bester's novel The Computer Connection a runcible spoon is used to feed the captive Capo Rip during his rehabilitation.
- In the webcomic Girl Genius, Gilgamesh Wulfenbach uses a "hand-cranked runcible gun" that shoots sporks during a staged fight.
- In the comic book, Venom : Carnage Unleashed, Venom tells Carnage "You deserve to get your brains scooped out with a runcible spoon!".
- In Tarun J. Tejpal's "Alchemy of Desire", the narrator and lead character refers to "a memorial of mundanity to our love. Romance in a runcible spoon." Page 444, Picador India (Publisher), ISBN 978-0-330-43555-0
- In the first Outlander book by Diana Gabaldon, the main character Claire realises during a meal that "runcible spoons would not be in general use for quite a few years yet".
Used as a character name
- In Ian Irvine's Runcible Jones series of books, Runcible Jones is a boy who is unhappy at Grindgrim Academy, the worst school in the country.
- In Evelyn Waugh's novel Vile Bodies, Runcible is the last name of daft, drunken Agatha.
- In the Doctor Who serial "The Deadly Assassin", Runcible is a Time Lord.
- In the roleplaying game Changeling: The Dreaming, "Runcible Shaw" is the name of a Pooka historian and scholar.
- In Jasper Fforde's novel The Eyre Affair the character Dr. Runcible Spoon discovers that Mr. Quaverley from Martin Chuzzlewit had mysteriously disappeared. Dr. Spoon later appears in the subsequent books of the Thursday Next series, of which The Eyre Affair is the first.
- Philip K. Dick named several characters in his novels Runcible or something similar: Louis Runcible in The Penultimate Truth, Leo Runcible in The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike, and Glen Runciter in Ubik.
- In Peter David's series of novels "Sir Apropos of Nothing" there exists a character named King Runcible.
- In the webcomic Questionable Content, J. Edward Runcible (an amalgamation of "Edward Lear" and "Runcible") is the name of a 19th-century conspiracy theorist.
- In the webcomic Dominic Deegan: Oracle For Hire, Professor Runcible Spoon is an elemental-researching mage.
- In the 1994 live-action film adaptation of the Harvey Comics comic book character Richie Rich, directed by Donald Petrie, the name of the Rich family's butler is Herbert Arthur Runcible Cadbury portrayed by Jonathan Hyde.
Used as a place name
- In the TV series Ed, the pie shop that Ed and his friends frequent is called The Runcible Spoon.
- In an episode ("Just My Bill") of the British Sitcom The Good Life, Tom Good tries to sell some of his excess vegetable crop to a restaurant called The Runcible Spoon.
- In the Liaden Universe by Lee and Miller, there is a "Runcible System" in the novel "Ghost Ship".
- In Nyack, NY there is a bakery by the name "Runcible Spoon, LLC".
- In the Stokes Croft area of Bristol, England, there is a restaurant called the Runcible Spoon.
- In Hebden Bridge, England, there used to be a coffee shop called Runcible Spoon.
- In Bloomington, Indiana, there is a restaurant called the Runcible Spoon, a local Bloomington staple and cultural landmark.
- In Camperdown, Sydney, Australia, there is a café called Runcible Spoon.
- In the Pretty Things song "Baron Saturday," (album S.F. Sorrow) the words "You've lost the runcible spoon" are used.
- Paul McCartney's album Driving Rain includes the track "Heather" which features the lyrics: "And I will dance to a runcible tune / With the queen of my heart". McCartney has explained the connection to "The Owl and the Pussycat" in various interviews since its release.
- Frabjoy & Runcible Spoon were a short-lived musical duo in the late 1960s consisting of Kevin Godley and Lol Creme. The pair were signed by Marmalade Records, and started work on an album with musicians Graham Gouldman and Eric Stewart before Marmalade shut down. The four musicians continued to collaborate and eventually evolved into the band 10cc.
- RUNCIBLE is also the name of a compiler for an early (late 1950s) programming language. Donald Knuth published the flowchart of the compiler in 1959; this was his first academic paper.
- The Runcible Spoon is a food magazine published in the District of Columbia. It was founded in 2010.
- "The Owl and the Pussycat".
- "How Pleasant to Know Mr. Lear".
- "The Pobble Who Has No Toes".
- "Mr. and Mrs. Discobbolos Part Two".
- "Twenty-Six Nonsense Rhymes and Pictures".
- Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary, 1974
- E. Cobham Brewer. "Dictionary of Phrase and Fable". Philadelphia: Henry Altemus Company, 1898. Online at bartleby.com.
- "Runcible Spoon". Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 3 November 2015.
- The Weirdest Ever Notes & Queries, ed. Joseph Harker, Fourth Estate, 1997, pp 170–171; also online
- "The Straight Dope", November 8, 1996: "What's a runcible spoon?"
- "Podictionary" 795: runcible
- Thompson, Dave. "Frabjoy & the Runcible Spoon". AllMusic.
- Knuth, D. E. (1959). "RUNCIBLE—algebraic translation on a limited computer". Communications of the ACM 2: 18–21. doi:10.1145/368481.368507.
- The Runcible Spoon - About