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