First printed in 1870, Edward Lear’s ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ is a much-loved children’s poem and one of the best-known examples of nonsense verse. It most famously features Lear’s ‘runcible spoon’, an invented piece of cutlery which makes its appearance in the final verse:
“Dear Pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
Your ring?” Said the Piggy, “I will.”
So they took it away, and were married next day
By the Turkey who lives on the hill.
They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.
So what exactly is a runcible spoon? The poem, after all, gives only the name and no clue as to the shape. Modern definitions suggest that it is ‘a fork curved like a spoon, with three broad prongs, one of which has a sharpened outer edge for cutting’. This might at first imply that Edward Lear came up with the concept for the spork!
However, Lear gives no written definition for ‘runcible spoon’, and it is a bit of a mystery where the spork-style meaning has come from. That said, the poet may have provided a definition of a more visual kind. The utensil crops up again in his 1872 collection, More nonsense, pictures, rhymes, botany, where he writes of ‘The Dolomphious Duck, who caught Spotted Frogs for her dinner with a Runcible Spoon’. This is accompanied with an illustration of said duck and spoon by the man himself.
Edward Lear’s illustration of the ‘runcible spoon’. Image from Wikimedia Commons.
Going by this, a runcible spoon is some sort of ladle. The Oxford English Dictionary recognises the spork-type definition as a later usage and states that in Lear’s work, a runcible spoon is simply ‘a type of spoon’ (what an anti-climax!). It adds that the adjective ‘runcible’ might have been formed from ‘rouncival’, a type of garden pea.
Other sources have suggested that ‘runcible’ was coined to make fun of Robert Runcie, who worked as a butler for Lear’s patron, the Earl of Derby – one of his jobs being to polish the earl’s set of silver spoons! Or it was created as a reference to the poet’s friend, George Runcy, who designed a special spoon for children in the belief that they should learn to feed themselves as soon as possible. There is no solid evidence to support either theory.
It is dangerous to start reading too deeply into such a simple word – this is nonsense, after all! Lear appears to have used the adjective on multiple other occasions in his poetry. In More nonsense, he refers to ‘the Rural Runcible Raven, who wore a White Wig and flew away with the Carpet Broom’. Later writings mention ‘Aunt Jobiska’s Runcible Cat’ (it has ‘crimson whiskers’, apparently), a ‘runcible hat’, and a ‘runcible wall’.
Edward Lear’s illustration of the ‘Rural Runcible Raven’. Image from Two Hundred Years of Nonsense: The Works of Edward Lear – an excellent site for getting acquainted with Lear’s weird and wonderful work.
The simplest conclusion is this: Edward Lear happened to come up with the word ‘runcible’, and liked its sound. While not the most satisfying conclusion, it is sensibly nonsensical!
It would be best for everyone’s sanity to leave things there, I think. If, by chance, the Owl and the Pussycat’s meal of mince and ‘slices of quince’ has suddenly reminded you of mince pies and you are now wondering why something as sweet as a mince pie has such a savoury name, there’s a much clearer answer for that question in this piece on ‘Mince Pies Through Time’…