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What Is a Runcible Spoon?

How did "runcible spoon," a nonsense word, get a "real" meaning? 

By
Mignon Fogarty
2-minute read
Episode #559

When I have spare time, I love looking though public domain collections of old books and art, and back in June I discovered an online collection from the British Library that has a book called Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany, and Alphabets by Edward Lear written in 1870. The book contains Lear’s famous nonsense poem “The Owl and the Pussycat” that your parents may have read to you as a bedtime story. In the poem, the owl and the pussycat fall in love, get a wedding ring from a pig, and are married by a turkey.

The thing that makes “The Owl and the Pussycat” a nonsense poem is that it uses made-up words, or nonsense words, such as the adjective "runcible." 

Another nonsense poem we’ve talked about before is “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll. He used far more nonsense words than Lear, including "mimsy," "galumphing," "slithy," and "wabe."

"Runcible" is the primary nonsense word in “The Owl and the Pussycat.” After the wedding, it says the pair,

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

In later nonsense poems, Lear wrote about runcible hats, cats, geese, and walls. 

A runcible spoon wasn’t a real thing at the time, but what I love about this story is that, like Lewis Carroll’s "galumphing," the phrase "runcible spoon" actually took on a meaning. "Runcible" alone is still nonsense, but if you look up "runcible spoon" in a dictionary today, you’ll find it!

Lear’s nonsense word became a real word in 1926 when according to the Oxford English Dictionary, "Notes & Queries" published the line “A runcible spoon is a kind of fork with three broad prongs or tines, one having a sharp edge, curved like a spoon, used with pickles.” It still tells us nothing about what a runcible hat or cat might look like, but at least we’ll know a runcible spoon when we see one.

The famous line from “The Owl and the Pussycat” that you may remember best is is the last line, after the wedding, when “They danced by the light of the moon.”

The British Library also has some of Lear’s whimsical drawings such as a plant he imagined called Manypeeplia Upsidownia that looks like a bluebell plant that grows people instead of flowers.

runcible spoon manypeeplia upsidownia

 

New Lear Poems Discovered 

UPDATE (July 6, 2021): A graduate student, Amy Wilcockson, discovered an unpublished Edward Lear poem while going through "a large collection of manuscripts known as the Charnwood Autograph Collection" in the British Library known as the Charnwood Autograph Collection. The charming limerick and sketch, along with another poem and writings, were in correspondence to "a young English woman [Lear] had befriended in Italy."

The new limerick reads:

There was an old man on a Bycicle,
Whose nose was adorned with an Icicle;
But they said – “If you stop,
“It will certainly drop,
& abolish both you & your Bycicle!

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.