Runcible

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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.[1] 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".[2] Other poems include mention of a "runcible cat",[3] a "runcible goose" (in the sense of "silly person"),[4] and a "runcible wall".[4]

Origin[edit]

One of Edward Lear's drawings depicts the dolomphious duck's use of a runcible spoon.

Edward Lear's best-known poem, "The Owl and the Pussycat", published in 1871, includes the passage:

They dined on mince and slices of quince,
which they ate with a runcible spoon.[1]

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[5]

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[edit]

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.[6] 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."[7] The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as "a sharp-edged fork with three broad curved prongs".[8] 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".[9]

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.[10][11]

In popular culture[edit]

The whimsical feel of the word "runcible" has led to its appearance in diverse arenas.

  • 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 webcomic Girl Genius, Gilgamesh Wulfenbach uses a "hand-cranked runcible gun" that shoots sporks during a staged fight.[12]
  • 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 webcomic Questionable Content, J. Edward Runcible (an amalgamation of "Edward Lear" and "Runcible") is the name of a 19th-century conspiracy theorist.[13]
  • In Bloomington, Indiana, there is a restaurant called the Runcible Spoon, a local Bloomington staple and cultural landmark.[14]
  • 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.
  • In the The Pretty Things’ psychedelic 1968 album, S.F. Sorrow, the song "Baron Saturday" features the lyrics: “'neath a sky of milk/You're drinking silk/You've lost the runcible spoon” in describing a part of the character's journey into his own subconscious mind.
  • 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.[15]
  • 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;[16] this was his first academic paper.
  • The Runcible Spoon is a food magazine published in the District of Columbia. It was founded in 2010.[17]
  • In The Deadly Assassin, a serial from the 14th season of the classic series of Doctor Who, the reporter Runcible is one of the Doctor's old classmates from the Prydonian Academy, and the Doctor refers to him as "Runcible the Fatuous".

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b "The Owl and the Pussycat". 
  2. ^ "How Pleasant to Know Mr. Lear". 
  3. ^ "The Pobble Who Has No Toes". 
  4. ^ a b "Mr. and Mrs. Discobbolos Part Two". 
  5. ^ "Twenty-Six Nonsense Rhymes and Pictures". 
  6. ^ Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary, 1974
  7. ^ E. Cobham Brewer. "Dictionary of Phrase and Fable". Philadelphia: Henry Altemus Company, 1898. Online at bartleby.com.
  8. ^ "Runcible Spoon". Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 3 November 2015. 
  9. ^ The Weirdest Ever Notes & Queries, ed. Joseph Harker, Fourth Estate, 1997, pp 170–171; also online
  10. ^ "The Straight Dope", November 8, 1996: "What's a runcible spoon?"
  11. ^ "Podictionary" 795: runcible
  12. ^ http://www.girlgeniusonline.com/comic.php?date=20081015
  13. ^ http://questionablecontent.net/view.php?comic=905
  14. ^ http://runciblespoonrestaurant.com
  15. ^ Thompson, Dave. "Frabjoy & the Runcible Spoon". AllMusic. 
  16. ^ Knuth, D. E. (1959). "RUNCIBLE—algebraic translation on a limited computer". Communications of the ACM. 2: 18–21. doi:10.1145/368481.368507. 
  17. ^ The Runcible Spoon - About